In the early 17th century, three Catholic dignitaries were thrown out of a window in Prague due to doctrinal differences. The event, which came to be known as the Defenestration of Prague, sparked the Thirty Years War that devastated Europe. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was of course not thrown out a literal window for his differences with Trump and the impact won’t be as dire.
The fallout from Rex Tillerson's unceremonious firing – which he apparently learned about from press reports and a Trump tweet – highlights several challenges for American foreign policy, potentially means a less-restrained Trump and on several key issues portends increasing policy divergence between Canberra and Washington.
Rumours of Tillerson’s imminent departure have been swirling for the better part of the past year. Trump and Tillerson had poor personal relations – exacerbated by the Secretary of State calling the President a “moron” and Trump’s repeated public undermining of his secretary – but the differences ran deeper.
Disagreements over policy, divergent views on the role and prioritisation of diplomacy in the foreign policy, and discrepancies between Foggy Bottom and the White House on who would take the lead on issues ranging from the Middle East to China all contributed to a sense that Tillerson was a “dead man walking.”
Tillerson’s short tenure was widely regarded as a disaster. Tillerson presided over drastic 30 per cent cuts to the State Department’s meagre budget, seemingly prioritised a departmental reorganisation over foreign policy and presided over a mass-exodus of the career diplomats whose expertise and experience helps any secretary carry out their agenda.
He displayed an indifference to engaging with the press and failed to appoint deputies into key positions of responsibility.
While Trump pulled the trigger, Tillerson’s departure has been welcomed within the State Department.
Secretaries of state traditionally play one of three roles – diplomat in chief; chief foreign policy advisor to the president; or chief executive of the State Department. Yet Tillerson’s lack of authoritative voice, his inability to shape the administrations’ policy stances on key points, and his introverted management style meant he failed in all three. This has lead many Washington insiders to conclude that he will go down as one of the worst modern secretaries of state.
His successor inherits several challenges for US diplomacy, including the staffing and running of the State Department and restoring it as an influential voice on foreign policy. They will have to hit the ground running and deal with looming policy decisions on issues including North Korea, China, and the Middle East.
Mike Pompeo, the current CIA Director and Trump’s designated Secretary of State, is in many ways a more natural fit for the role than Tillerson ever was.
Where Tillerson was an outsider who never came to grips with Washington, Pompeo has been in the capital since 2011 as a Congressman and then CIA Director.
He knows the key people and understands the importance of building relationships, not just with the White House, but other government agencies, Congress and journalists. And in many ways, the State Department, tasked to carry out the administration’s foreign policy and explain it to the world, is a more natural fit for Pompeo than the CIA.
If confirmed by the Senate, Pompeo has the opportunity to boost morale within the State Department and expand its influence. He could start by picking the low-hanging fruit, including better drawing on the expertise of career officials. Second, a slate of senior diplomatic positions remain vacant and could be filled expeditiously. Third, and perhaps most difficult, Pompeo will want to convince Trump that the State Department requires a stable budget rather than the drastic 20-30 per cent cuts favoured by the White House.
“Tremendous energy, tremendous intellect,” Trump said of Pompeo. “We are always on the same wavelength.”
The Australian government has welcomed Pompeo’s appointment – because he clearly has Trump’s trust and will start in the role more empowered to speak and act on behalf of the President. Yet Australia may have a more difficult time with him than Tillerson. From suggesting regime change in Pyongyang would be beneficial, to strongly opposing the Iran nuclear deal, to voicing climate scepticism, Pompeo has expressed views consistent with Trump’s inclinations.
Where Tillerson was a voice of moderation within the Trump Administration, albeit a weak one, Pompeo is unlikely to restrain Trump’s most destabilising impulses. Once he is in place, it could be a bumpy ride.