Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has often been the silent man in the Trump foreign policy team. But out of the spotlight, he appears to be crafting a broad strategy aimed at working with China to resolve the North Korea crisis and with Russia to stabilize Syria and Ukraine.
The Tillerson approach focuses on personal diplomacy, in direct contacts with Chinese and Russian leaders, and through private channels to North Korea. His core strategic assumption is that if the United States can subtly manage its relations with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin — and allow those leaders to take credit for successes — complex regional problems can be solved effectively.
Tillerson appears unfazed by criticism that he has been a poor communicator and by recent talk of discord with President Trump. His attitude isn’t exactly “take this job and shove it,” but as a former ExxonMobil chief executive, he doesn’t need to make money or Washington friends — and he clearly thinks he has more urgent obligations than dealing with the press.
Tillerson appears to have preserved a working relationship with Trump despite pointedly separating himself from the president’s controversial comments after the Charlottesville unrest. Although Trump didn’t initially like Tillerson’s statement, it’s said he was ultimately comfortable with it.
The North Korea crisis is the best example of Tillerson’s diplomacy. For all the bombast of Trump’s tweets, the core of U.S. policy has been an effort to work jointly with China to reverse the North Korean nuclear buildup through negotiations. Tillerson has signaled that the United States is ready for direct talks with Kim Jong Un’s regime — perhaps soon, if Kim shows restraint. Tillerson wants China standing behind Kim at the negotiating table, with its hands figuratively at Kim’s throat.
Despite Pyongyang’s hyper-belligerent rhetoric, its representatives have conveyed interest in negotiations, querying details of U.S. positions. But Kim’s actions have been erratic and confusing: When it appeared that the North Koreans wanted credit for not launching missiles toward Guam, Tillerson offered such a public statement. Bizarrely, North Korea followed with three more weapons tests, in a reckless rebuff.
Some analysts see North Korea’s race to test missiles and bombs as an effort to prepare the strongest possible bargaining position before negotiations. Tillerson seems to be betting that China can force such talks by imposing an oil embargo against Pyongyang. U.S. officials hope Xi will make this move unilaterally, demonstrating strong leadership publicly, rather than waiting for the United States to insert the embargo proposal in a new U.N. Security Council resolution.
Tillerson signaled his seriousness about Korea talks during a March visit to the Demilitarized Zone. He pointed to a table at a U.N. office there and remarked, “Maybe we’ll use this again,” if negotiations begin.
The Sino-American strategic dialogue about North Korea has been far more extensive than either country acknowledges. They’ve discussed joint efforts to stabilize the Korean Peninsula, including Chinese actions to secure nuclear weapons if the regime collapses.
The big idea driving Tillerson’s China policy is that the fundamentals of the relationship have changed as China has grown more powerful and assertive. The message to Beijing is that Xi’s actions in defusing the North Korea crisis will shape U.S.-China relations for the next half-century.
Tillerson continues to work the Russia file, even amid new Russia sanctions. He has known Putin since 1999 and views him as a predictable, if sometimes bullying, leader. Even with the relationship in the dumps, Tillerson believes he’s making some quiet progress on Ukraine and Syria.
On Ukraine, Tillerson supports Russia’s proposal to send U.N. peacekeepers to police what Putin claims are Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s assaults on Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine. The addition of U.N. monitors would help implement the Minsk agreement, even if Putin gets the credit and Poroshenko the blame.
On Syria, Tillerson has warned Putin that the real danger to Russian interests is increasing Iranian power there, especially as Bashar al-Assad’s regime regains control of Deir al-Zour in eastern Syria. To counter the Iranians, Tillerson supports a quick move by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces to capture the lower Euphrates Valley.
Trump’s boisterous, sometimes belligerent manner and Tillerson’s reticence are an unlikely combination, and many observers have doubted the relationship can last. But Tillerson seems to roll with the punches — and tweets. When Trump makes a disruptive comment, Tillerson seems to treat it as part of the policy landscape — and ponder how to use it to advantage.
Tillerson may be the least public chief diplomat in modern U.S. history, but that’s apparently by choice. By Washington standards, he’s strangely uninterested in taking the credit.