Postures and Gestures Rather than Results

by Paul R. Pillar

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 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 the administration’s record of crippling the State Department and going 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 that 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.

Photo: Rex Tillerson (Wikimedia Commons).

Paul Pillar

Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy. He retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in the U.S. intelligence community. His senior positions included National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, Deputy Chief of the DCI Counterterrorist Center, and Executive Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence. He is a Vietnam War veteran and a retired officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. Dr. Pillar's degrees are from Dartmouth College, Oxford University, and Princeton University. His books include Negotiating Peace (1983), Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy (2001), Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy (2011), and Why America Misunderstands the World (2016).



  1. ‘ … sympathy for Tillerson, who seems to be a good man,

    Tillerson is among the many high-level exec in the oil industry to have denied for several decades, the findings on climate change of their own scientists in the late 70s early 80s – while at the same time planning for this change, by e.g. raising ocean drilling platforms against rising seas and stronger storms. This has undercut by several decades whatever changes will be made to fossil fuel reduction.

    This is not the action of a ‘good man’, but one who should feel right at home in a mendacious and reflexively defensive administration which is utterly self-absorbed and rapacious. .

  2. Focusing on results, Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State for four years. She was was enormously ineffective on achievements and tremendously effective in fostering destructive wars, especially in Syria and Libya. Yet she almost gained the presidency. Foreign policy never was a significant factor.

    Now we have a new administration which was elected to change the status quo, to reverse old policies. The Trump Administration is committed to a foreign policy focused on American interests and American national security and not on defending the world. This something Americans want, but it has changed foreign opinions of the U.S. So what. That is to be expected. Also that “America First” strategy means that the current Secretary of State is going to be short on results, and that too is to be expected. Let’s remember that it’s not anything new.

    Thierry Meyssan: (quote)
    Breaking with the habits of his predecessors, Donald Trump’s National Security Strategy abandons the management of world affairs and lays out the path to the economic and social recovery of the United States. This project, which is perfectly coherent, represents a brutal change that his cabinet will now have to impose on the whole of his administration.. .The role of the White House, its diplomacy and its armed forces is no longer to rule the world, but to protect « the interests of the people of the United States ».

  3. Thank you, Paul Pillar, for bringing the Tillerson Op-Ed of December 27 to my attention. My reaction is disappointment. Should the lesson learned from Rex Tillerson’s 1-year tenure as Secretary of State be that this multinational CEO is not suited for that position, or that all multinational CEO’s would not be suited? If the latter, that point should be made with influential Senators responsible for the confirmation hearing.

    Tillerson starts with having “faced immense challenges [with] DPRK, China and Russia.” Really? Immense? With China? With Russia? In 2017?

    He starts his final paragraph with “When I wake up each morning, my first thought is…” How would you and your readers like to see that sentence completed by the United States Secretary of State? IMHO I would like to see some American idealism reflected, perhaps along the lines ‘what actions can I take today to help the Department of State make the world a better place’. But Tillerson wrote “prevent people around the world from being killed, wounded or deprived of their rights.” That demonstrates to me that he really is ready to leave his office and return to the private sector.

  4. Thank you Dr Pillar! Tillerson would’ve been much happier if he’d remained as the CEO of Exxon Co! It’s the fault of the Republicans in the Senate committee for selecting him as the the Secretary of State because he’s shaken hands with Putin a few times when he was the CEO!
    It’s also interesting that in his oped Tillerson hasn’t mentioned or you left this part out that in fact the Russians and Iranians did ISIS’s ass and left them no place hide in Iraq and Syria! The regional news about the remaining ISIS forces though were very interesting to pay attention to as well! It was apparently a common knowledge that ISIS was given a clear path to Pakistan and from there into Afghanistan while Mr Mattis was visiting the region! The belief is that Pakistan didn’t accept ISIS and directly sent them to Afghanistan which apparently upset Trum! This is a very interesting development if indeed true! But one thing is for sure that ISIS has raised its ugly head from Afghanistan in recent weeks!

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