Rex Tillerson Is Fired. Whither US Foreign Policy?

On Tuesday, March 13, US President Donald Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and nominated CIA Director Mike Pompeo as his successor. Valdai Club expert Robert Legvold explains the reasons behind this decision and shares his view of its consequences for the US foreign policy.

Tillerson’s resignation has been anticipated since last fall, when newspapers reported that he had called the president a “moron”. Donald Trump was very angry at him. It was in December when The New York Times reported that Tillerson was about to go and would be replaced by CIA director Mike Pompeo. Why the president had not dismissed him at that point and waited a few more months is not clear. Why he does it now, at a critical time, when we are thinking about the president’s meeting with the North Korean leader, and when there are key issues on the table, because the president has imposed new tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, is a bit of a puzzle. It is hard to explain the timing. Perhaps it is simply a characteristic of the unpredictable administration and not something you would expect in normal circumstances.

The impact of this shift on the US-Russia relations and the US foreign policy in general is probably limited. Even if Pompeo has the reputation of being less moderate than Tillerson, as someone who has the president’s confidence, he will be able to conduct a constructive policy toward Russia. However, the political pressure on Washington these days makes it very difficult for Moscow and Washington to make any progress. Nevertheless, I do not think Pompeo will be part of the problem. If there is a possibility of moving forward, he will be part of the progress.

In terms of the US foreign policy generally, it is difficult to know what the impact is likely to be. Tillerson was never really able to exercise an independent role while he was dealing with North Korea and our European allies. There may even be small benefit from Pompeo as the Secretary of State, and not only because he has the president’s confidence. I think he will probably be quite compatible with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and with National Security Advisor Herbert McMaster – they are of the same mentality – so we may have more coherence in the US policy in general and in particular in the US national security policy.

It is hard to say if there will be any other shifts in the White House personnel. There has been a rumor for some time that John Kelly lost Trump’s favor, just like Tillerson, and is going to be replaced. Given the number of people in the administration who have left within a little more than a year, I think it would be surprising if other people do not leave in the next couple of months, whether by their own initiative or because the president and the people around him decide to get rid of them.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.