Opinion: What Tillerson Won't Admit

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson may think his year-end summary of U.S. foreign policy is a tale of success. But the remarkable op-ed article in the New York Times in fact illustrates the opposite: It shows in chapter and verse how the U.S. lacks leverage over many of the critical challenges it faces globally. From North Korea to China to Russia and the Middle East, American objectives are clear -- and the Donald Trump administration has no credible road map to achieve them.

Start with North Korea. Tillerson’s argument is that President Trump’s confrontational strategy has worked. His proof is that Kim Jong Un’s provocative missile launches have enabled the U.S. to get three sanctions resolutions from the United Nations Security Council.

Let’s leave to one side the obvious objection that Kim’s provocations would’ve produced a strong international reaction even if Trump hadn’t continually increased the sense of crisis with his own insulting rhetoric. The Trump administration and Nikki Haley, the UN ambassador, deserve credit for shepherding the resolutions to passage.

Yet the resolutions don’t have much prospect of reducing the North Korean nuclear threat or changing Kim’s behavior. North Korea’s nuclear program is intended to protect the regime’s existence. Backing down on missiles would simply weaken Kim -- and he knows it.

The North Korean regime has for many years survived the privations to which it subjects it citizens. It can continue to survive even with new sanctions. The upshot is that U.S. and international leverage over North Korea remains weak.

What’s more, Trump has made no progress in gaining leverage against China, which alone has the economic importance to squeeze North Korea. Tillerson admits as much, writing that China “could and should do more” to pressure its unruly ally.

Yet China has no interest in a failed or existentially weakened North Korea, which it needs as a buffer against U.S. ally South Korea. And there is no prospect of changing this Chinese incentive.

Trump talked a big game on China during his presidential campaign -- and has delivered nothing, diplomatically speaking. Tillerson offers a correct diagnosis of the problem: “China’s rise as an economic and military power,” he writes, “requires Washington and Beijing to consider carefully how to manage our relationship for the next 50 years.”

In other words, the cool war between the U.S. and China is continuing. 1  But the Trump administration, including Tillerson, has taken no visible steps to figure out how that cool war should be shaped.

One approach would seek to contain China’s military growth; another would try to limit China’s economic influence by regional alliances like the Trans-Pacific Partnership that Trump deep-sixed. Still another would accept China’s rise and encourage its participation in the liberal international order. Trump has opted for “none of the above” -- but without choosing any identifiable strategy.

This failure reflects the reality that U.S. options are constrained by the risks of challenging China too directly, either militarily or diplomatically.

Things are still worse when it comes to Russia, the Achilles’ heel of the Trump administration. Tillerson dutifully repeats that “there cannot be business as usual” with Russia so long as the invasion of Ukraine remains unresolved. But he goes on to say that the U.S. must work with Russia in Syria.

The reality is that Russian President Vladimir Putin has delivered Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a victory over both Islamic State and free Syrian forces. The U.S. was never prepared to get rid of Assad. But the victory of his brutal, pro-Iranian regime can’t be counted as a U.S. win.

The trouble is that there isn’t much the U.S. can do about it. Trump claims victory over Islamic State, but at least in Syria that win is more Putin’s than his. Good luck moving Putin on Ukraine now.

All this brings us to Iran. Tillerson writes that the nuclear deal “is no longer the focal point” of U.S. policy. That’s a relief -- but it’s so because Trump has no real leverage over Iran via sanctions. Europe can continue its economic ties with Tehran even if the U.S. were to withdraw from the nuclear deal.

Instead, Tillerson effectively hints, Trump’s pro-Saudi policy is intended to isolate Iran. Over the long run, a strengthened Saudi-Israel axis would indeed be bad for Iran -- but that depends on an Israel-Palestine peace deal that is unlikely at best, and that isn't even mentioned in Tillerson’s essay. For now, U.S. leverage on Iran is minimal.

Finally, there is Pakistan, where Trump has deviated slightly from precedent by faulting the government for supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan more publicly than did George W. Bush or Barack Obama. Those presidents didn’t trust Pakistan either, but they found they had no choice but to engage various governments there, despite Pakistan’s ongoing double game.

Trump doesn’t have any better leverage than his predecessors on Pakistan. Tillerson wrote that the U.S. will partner with Pakistan if the country will “demonstrate its desire to partner with us.” That’s a carrot, to be sure -- but until there is a meaningful stick, Pakistan will continue its long-term policy of hedging against eventual U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the return of the Taliban to power there, not to mention the rise of Islamic State in the region.

The first year of Trump diplomacy is therefore not one of which Tillerson should be especially proud. Neither he nor Trump is responsible for limits to U.S. leverage. But they are responsible for adopting policies designed to address the reality of those limits -- and so far, they mostly haven’t.

This column first appeared in Bloomberg.