Let Our Stale Foreign Policy Dogma Leave with Tillerson

A golden opportunity awaits to bring real change to the State Department.

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.

Rex Tillerson’s departure from the State Department is an opportunity to correct the fossilized received wisdom that for years has hampered our foreign policy. His replacement, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, seems likely to rejuvenate State by bringing a more realist philosophy to our relations with the world.

From the start Tillerson was a dubious pick to implement the president’s policies, and his differences with Trump were predicated on the same assumptions evident in Barack Obama’s two terms. Obama is the epitome of the globalist idealism that dominates Western political and business elites. In their view, interstate relations and conflicts are best managed with “supranational constraints on unilateral policies and the progressive development of community norms,” as Oxford professor Kalypso Nicolaides put it. This “security community” favors “civilian forms of influence and action,” rather than military, and the “soft power” international idealists regularly tout to create “tolerance between states” and to “move beyond the relationships of dominance and exploitation” by mean of “integration, prevention, mediation, and persuasion.” 

Obama’s disastrous foreign policy mirrored these utopian goals, what the New York Times at the beginning of Obama’s presidency identified as a “renewed emphasis on diplomacy, consultation, and the forging of broad international coalitions.” The Times was quoting Obama.  In a 2007 Foreign Affairs article, he highlighted the “need to reinvigorate American diplomacy,” and to “renew American leadership in the world” and “rebuild the alliances, partnerships, and institutions necessary to confront common threats and enhance common security.” These goals, moreover, required toning down expressions of American exceptionalism, which he recommended in 2009, and participating in global affairs “not in the spirit of a patron but in the spirit of a partner–– a partner mindful of his own imperfections.”

Obama’s two terms reflected these recommendations. His foreign policy was one of American retreat and “leading from behind.” The results were disastrous. The abandonment of Iraq created a vacuum which was filled by Iraq, Russia, and ISIS, followed up by the gruesome civil war in Syria and the ongoing slaughter and refugee crisis continuing today. The misguided “multinational” NATO adventure in Libya, ostensibly to protect civilians, instead led to the collapse of political order, the proliferation of jihadi outfits, and the flooding of the region with weapons from Gaddafi’s arsenals, which in turn set the stage for the murder of four Americans in Benghazi. Most dangerous was the nuclear deal with Iran, the fruit of Obama’s emphasis on “diplomacy, consultation, and the forging of broad international coalitions.” The outcome of this leap of faith has been the financing of Iran’s terrorist regime, and enough breathing space for the mullahs to move closer to their goal of nuclear-armed missiles.

Trump was elected in part because he rejected this shop-worn internationalism and its shibboleth of “soft power.” It was strange, then, that he made Tillerson his Secretary of State. As CEO of Exxon-Mobil, Tillerson comes from a world of global business and political elites, where consultation and negotiation––deal-making, not violence––are the mechanisms of doing business. There is no indication from his words and deeds that Tillerson grasped the immense global diversity in cultures, mores, values, and beliefs that are the roots of state action, and that make the “international community” a delusion useful for global commerce and the dogmas of collectivism. He seemed not to take into account that agreements and treaties are not expressions of international “community norms,” but of national self-interest and ideological passions. For most nations, even our so-called “friends and allies,” diplomacy is weaponized in order to serve interests and passions that are radically different from, and often inimical to, our own. 

On Tillerson’s departure he said something that expressed this misguided idealism: “U.S. leadership starts with diplomacy.” No, U.S. leadership starts with prestige, our credibility with friends and enemies alike that we will use our immense military and economic power to help our friends and hurt our enemies. Diplomacy without “swords,” to paraphrase Thomas Hobbes, are “mere words.” The sincere belief that we will use mind-concentrating force against those who seek to damage our own security and interests is the necessary precondition for successful diplomacy. Without that belief, diplomacy, negotiated agreements, talks, and summits become the means for our rivals and enemies to achieve their own aims on the cheap––and for feckless politicians to create the illusion of doing something when the political cost of action is too high.

The two main points of disagreement between Tillerson and Trump focused on differences in foreign policy philosophy. Tillerson and others wanted to stay in the Paris Climate Accords because “we” had agreed to them, and it would hurt our credibility if we withdrew and thus appeared indifferent to the coming global-warming apocalypse. This is the stale and dishonest argument the Democrats used against George W. Bush when he didn’t sign the Kyoto Accords. But such executive decisions are not made by “We the people.” A treaty confirmed by the Senate, those more directly accountable to the people, creates a binding obligation. And even then, any sovereign nation can leave any treaty, which is why NATO and the EU have in their treaties provisions for withdrawal. 

And Trump had good reasons for withdrawing. Like its numerous ineffectual predecessors, the Paris Accords had little to do with alleged catastrophic global warming. Its modest goal of a 2˚ Celsius reduction in temperatures by 2030 was already out of reach by the time Trump took office, and even if achieved would have barely reduced the projected warming. This will not surprise anyone who knows that the whole history of “global warning” has been driven by political and economic interests that came before the “science” (see Rupert Darwall, The Age of Global Warming). And those interests are inimical to our own, especially the hit to our economy that such policies would inflict, as Obama’s “war on carbon” illustrated during his tenure.

That’s why Obama didn’t present the Paris Accords as a treaty requiring two-thirds of the Senate, who being subject to the ballot-box had no more interest in such a costly fraud than the Senate did in 1997, when it voted 97-0 not even to consider the Kyoto treaty. Nor is Trump’s withdrawal damaging to our “strength” or prestige, but rather the opposite: a signal to allies and enemies that we will not damage our own interests just to get some international plaudits for hewing to the global received wisdom about the dubious theory of human-caused catastrophic climate change.

Much more dangerous is Tillerson’s support for the nuclear agreement with Iran that Trump during his campaign roundly denounced and promised to scuttle. Tillerson publicly expressed his preference for the option to “stay in the deal and hold Iran accountable to its terms,” which he said would require Iran to act as a “good neighbor,” a bit of naïveté dangerous in a Secretary of State. The Iran “agreement” also was not submitted to the Senate as a treaty to be approved or rejected by the people’s representatives, bespeaking Obama’s distrust of the citizens. As a result, an anti-Semitic, genocidal, theocratic regime, the world’s worst state sponsor of terrorism and up to its elbows in American blood, was given in cash and sanctions-relief a multi-billion-dollar reprieve from accelerating economic collapse, and a clear road for achieving its aims of acquiring nuclear weapons deliverable by long-range missiles. 

This suicidal act of appeasement was justified, at least publicly, by the same old nostrums of idealistic internationalism that motivated Neville Chamberlain in Munich. In a 2015 speech justifying the deal, Obama employed all the worn-out tropes of a “postmodern” foreign policy and its fetish for “soft power.” He praised “our ability to draw upon new U.N. Security Council resolutions” and “hard, painstaking diplomacy––not saber-rattling, not tough talk”; and he decried “military action” which “would be far less effective than this deal in preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” relying on the specious argument that all-out war is the only effective use of force. 

And he promoted the goal of reintegrating Iran into the international community, claiming that “the majority of the Iranian people have powerful incentives to urge their government to move in a different, less provocative direction––incentives that are strengthened by this deal.” If Iran takes that chance, “that would be good for Iran, it would be good for the United States.  It would be good for a region that has known too much conflict.  It would be good for the world.” Of course, this is the same Obama who in 2009 sat on his hands when brave Iranians protested against the corrupt, brutal mullocracy, and who thinks that giving fanatics and murderers nuclear weapons will normalize their government rather than empower their aggression.

Tillerson’s replacement, Mike Pompeo, has been clear in his hawkish public statements that the Iran deal is failing and should be rejected: “I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state-sponsor of terrorism.” Unlike Tillerson, he has a good relationship with the president, with whom he communicates frequently. One hopes that he will remind Trump that “deal-making” prowess in the business world is light-years from negotiations with state rivals and enemies, where force or a credible threat of lethal force is the sine qua non. He may also encourage Trump to make his policy actions match his campaign rhetoric, and unlike Tillerson, discard a failed foreign policy idealism predicated on naïve internationalism and a fetish for verbal processes. His appointment will be a big step toward undoing the manifold foreign policy failures Obama left in his wake.