Paul Pillar

Postures and Gestures Rather than Results

Last week an op ed appeared in The New York Times under the byline of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with the title “I Am Proud of Our Diplomacy”.  The piece did not seem to get much notice during the holiday period.  It evidently will serve as a defense of a thin and disappointing record as Tillerson nears the likely end of an unhappy tenure.  One has to have some sympathy for Tillerson, who seems to be a good man, however ill-suited he turned out to be for the job of chief diplomat.  His biggest handicap has been the nature of the president for whom he works and the nature of his relationship with that president.  Some lines in the op ed reflect how the president has repeatedly undermined and contradicted his secretary of state—such as an oxymoronic sentence about negotiation with North Korea that says both that a “door to dialogue remains open” and that the regime “must earn its way back to the negotiating table.”

Many lines in the op ed are cringe-worthy not just because of Tillerson’s own performance but because the administration of which he is a part has presided over one of the most precipitous drops of U.S. standing in the world, into ever-greater depths of isolation and distrust.  Favorable references in the piece to diplomacy contrast with a record in which the administration has crippled the State Department and has been missing in action on important diplomatic fronts.  A reference to Syria, for example, and to how “we expect Russia to follow through” makes it sound as if the United States had been leading and Russia lagging in Syrian peace diplomacy, rather than the other way around.

Then there are the repeated attempts to paint as new initiatives and accomplishments developments that really are not.  The piece claims credit, for example, for having “recaptured virtually all of previously held Islamic State territory in Iraq and Syria”—a process that was well underway under the previous administration.  A reference to adopting “a new South Asia strategy, which focuses on Afghanistan” concerns a policy that can more accurately be described as minor adjustments to policies of the last two administrations toward the unending war in Afghanistan.

Perhaps the leading characteristic, however, of this piece that supposedly lists accomplishments is one that hardly is unique to Tillerson or the Trump administration but instead is a recurrent tendency in discussions of U.S. foreign policy and in U.S. policy itself.  This is the tendency to consider as an “accomplishment” the assumption of a public posture through statements and rhetoric, or a material gesture of disapproval such as an economic sanction, rather than actual results in the form of a change in another government’s policies or some other improvement on the ground overseas.

What Tillerson’s op ed says about North Korea, its first topic, is an illustration.  The piece seems to acknowledge the importance of results with a reference to abandoning “the failed policy of strategic patience”.  But the supposed accomplishments are all phrased in terms of how much economic and political pressure is being exerted on North Korea.  There is nothing about any changes in North Korean policy being achieved.  On Iran, Tillerson says “we are now confronting the totality of Iranian threats” and building an “effort to punish Iran” for whatever it is we don’t like about its behavior, but again there is nothing to show in the way of results in eliciting changes in that behavior.

To focus on results is not to say that any administration ought to be graded solely on end results rather than on the effort and skill shown in aiming for those results.  Much of what occurs overseas and has at least tangential relevance for U.S. interests is beyond the control of the U.S. government.  But the skill needs to be present and the effort needs to be directed in a well-conceived way—with a strategy that offers good reason to believe that it will achieve results—to earn a good grade.  There is a major difference between this and merely registering one’s disapproval about what some other country is doing, or punishing that country for doing it.

Regarding the current popular protests in Iran, the Trump administration has assumed a posture and has argued that its posture is different and distinctive.  We may soon be able to assess whether that posture is achieving any results. 

Image: U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson addresses a news conference during a meeting of OSCE Foreign Ministers in Vienna, Austria, December 7, 2017. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger