Rex Tillerson recently completed his first trip to Beijing as Secretary of State. Since then, a slew of critics have panned Tillerson for supposedly handing China a ‘diplomatic victory’ because a joint media conference includes phrases like ‘win-win’ and ‘mutual respect’ - notions these critics don’t believe in, apparently.
Such comments embody the substantive vacuity that has dominated failed foreign policy for the last two decades and demonstrate the fixation on protocol that was explicitly rejected by American voters last November. The fact that language preferred by China is being used is no more a ‘diplomatic victory’ than a dinner host providing a vanilla desert when a guest may have chosen caramel.
What matters is what Secretary Tillerson achieves on issues affecting American interests: North Korea’s nuclear program; Chinese expansion in the South China Sea; import tariffs; and cyber security. This is where ‘diplomatic victories’ are to be had.
By appointing Rex Tillerson Secretary of State, President Trump jettisoned the academic navel gazers in favour of someone who, for more than 40 years, delivered outcomes for world's most highly capitalised corporation. To do this, the former CEO of Exxon-Mobil actually had to build relationships with leaders in all corners of the world. And in line with his overall demeanour, Tillerson succeeded by avoiding petulant matters of ego.
Anyone who thinks that Tillerson’s quiet deal-making style signals a new kind of appeasement towards Beijing simply isn’t paying attention. The Trump administration is clearly the most ‘China threat’ administration in generations, to the point where a rapprochement with Moscow is given priority in-spite of overwhelming domestic pressure.
And some issues are of existential urgency. Through scandalous neglect (by existing foreign policy elite) North Korea has been allowed to conduct five nuclear tests of increasing sophistication, while Kim Jong-un has undertaken more missile tests in the past two years than his father did during his entire time as leader.
For the Trump administration, there is almost certainly a red-line to military intervention: an atmospheric test of a nuclear weapon mounted on a missile. This would demonstrate the successful marriage of nuclear weapons with long-range delivery vehicles, and prove such a threat to the US that it may risk a major conflict on the peninsula to neutralise it. Given the trajectory of North Korea’s advances, such a test at some point seems inevitable. If this sounds extreme, remember that Kim Jong-Un just assassinated his own brother using VX at a major international airport. And in 1962, the US conducted such a test itself.
To Tillerson’s credit, North Korea was the urgent priority during his talks with his Chinese counterparts.
Other criticisms of Tillerson are equally farcical. Apparently not visiting the embassy in Tokyo is ‘dumb diplomacy 101’, if so, it’s not an interesting course. Some feel that Tillerson ‘doesn’t have the confidence of the president’, and indeed this would be serious were it true. Those levelling this allegation must explain why the President would send someone to personally negotiate with President Xi who did not have his full confidence. The fact is the President and Secretary of State simply have different styles, and it’s probably something President Trump appreciates.
Tillerson is doing his job – quietly seeking to achieve positive outcomes for US interests without grandstanding on American greatness or pandering to misplaced entitlement. Granted, self-effacing competence isn’t something we’ve seen in a Secretary of State in many years, however those who seek to denigrate Tillerson by obsessing about Chinese terminology and not North Korea’s nuclear expansion need to vacate the stage. It's time for a new generation to clean up their mess.