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Can Tillerson Improve U.S. Foreign Policy?
The new U.S. dispensation needs to discard hegemonic baggage and mend fences with both Russia and China
By Clifford A. Kiracofe | NO. 51 DECEMBER 22, 2016

U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands during this year's APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting in Lima, Peru, on November 20 (XINHUA)

President-elect Donald Trump's pick of Rex Tillerson for secretary of state offers many possibilities to improve the conduct of the United States' foreign relations. A realistic, practical, and businesslike approach to foreign relations is certainly in order for Washington. But Tillerson faces political obstacles.

During the campaign, Trump made it clear that he wants a new foreign policy and new people to create and implement it. He criticized the policy of unnecessary intervention and war in the Middle East and said he wanted to improve relations with major powers such as Russia. He said he wanted new thinking and a policy that puts "America first."

Trump's stated vision is a sharp break from post-World War II mainstream U.S. foreign policy based upon a hegemonic global role for the United States. Trump gave the impression that he sees the world in more multipolar terms and rejects rigid Cold War thinking.

Friends and foes

Such a non-interventionist and practical foreign policy is welcomed in some political circles but opposed by others. The basic split is between the various political factions in each party which support hegemonism and those who oppose it.

During the campaign, Trump and Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders appealed to the vast majority of Americans who want to stop the present policy of global intervention, hegemonism and endless war. The other Republican candidates and Hillary Clinton are all well-known hawks.

So the choice of Tillerson is a welcome one to many if it means the pursuit of a constructive U.S. foreign policy based upon a realistic understanding of national interests. This means careful calculation of means and ends, prudence, and restraint from unnecessary interventionism. Globalist activism and crusades for regime change are expected to be halted in this context.

Because Trump appears to see the world in multipolar terms, it is logical for him to change the way Washington deals with other major powers. Thus, his stated goal of repairing relations with Russia is understandable but this is a tall order considering the damaging impact of the hostile and counterproductive Russia policy under the Obama administration.

Russia, however, is open to improving relations with the United States as Vladimir Putin has made clear on many occasions for a number of years. Although his signals fell on deaf ears it seems that is about to change as Trump moves to begin a new type of relationship with Russia.

Tillerson, an engineer, became a global businessman leading one of the world's giant corporations. Given such experience, he has a realistic understanding of international affairs and of the international economy. Additionally, he has management experience which can help update and improve the machinery of U.S. diplomacy.


Rex Tillerson, CEO of oil giant ExxonMobil, is chosen by U.S. President-elect Donald Trump as the next U.S. secretary of state (CFP)

To Russia, with love? 

American commercial relations with Russia date back to 1697 when Peter the Great issued an edict allowing the importation of tobacco from Virginia. During the 18th and 19th centuries, there was active commerce between the United States and Russia. Even during the 20th century, before World War II, a number of U.S. companies were doing business in the former Soviet Union. Lenin's New Economic Policy welcomed foreign business.

Political opposition to Tillerson comes in various forms. Some oppose him for being the head of a giant capitalist business corporation. Some oppose him for supporting the development of hydrocarbon resources which they see as causing global warming.

Very sharp opposition comes from Republican and Democratic politicians who are anti-Russia because of their outdated Cold War perspective. They want to see regime change in Russia and have a hysterical and alarmist reaction to the nation's leader. Other politicians oppose him because of their agenda for promoting "human rights and democracy in Russia."

So it is likely that there will be some heated rhetoric in the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations during the confirmation process. Whether the rhetoric of the fulminating politicians transforms into enough votes to kill the nomination remains to be seen.

What are the stakes in the Tillerson nomination?

There are several geopolitical concepts making their way around Washington as a basis for national strategy and foreign policy. To date, during President Barack Obama's administration, the leading concept has been hegemonism and a unipolar approach.

The basic national strategy under Obama has been to put pressure on Russia and China and use Western allies as a means to maintain global dominance through NATO and other means. The so-called "pivot" strategy is part and parcel of this larger geopolitical design.

But this strategy has been overtaken by international developments. So the question today is whether or not the Trump administration can come up with a new vision and a new strategy and foreign policy.

The geopolitical concept underlying the Obama foreign policy and pivot is the creation of an alignment of the United States with India, Japan, and Australia to contain China. Some circles would like to continue this under Trump.

A variation being discussed in some think tanks is an initiative by the United States to split Russia away from China and form a United States' alignment with India, Japan, and Russia against China. Although fanciful, one does hear this around Washington.

A level-headed approach 

A more sensible approach for the 21st century is cooperation among the major powers. For the Pacific, this would involve China, Russia, Japan, and the United States working in concert to manage new initiatives for economic development as well as to replace old obsolete security architecture.

While it appears that Trump does indeed have a positive general idea about improving relations with Russia, his approach to China so far leaves something to be desired. On the one hand, he sends a positive signal with his new choice for ambassador to China but on the other hand, his advisors push him into contradictory and counterproductive signals involving the Taiwan red line.

Tillerson must energize U.S. foreign policy in the direction of major power cooperation in the interest of global peace and development. While working to court Moscow, he must work overtime now to court Beijing.

The author is a former senior staff member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and an op-ed contributor to Beijing Review 

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar 

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