With the presumed designation of Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, and former U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton as Deputy Secretary of State, Donald Trump will be sending a clear message to the world: the U.S. is open for business (presumably to the highest bidder), it will be carrying a big stick, there will be no speaking softly, and the operative word will be “bulldozer”. There will effectively be no subtlety, no negotiation, and no shades of grey: starting in January, it will be Trump’s way or the highway.
For those Trump voters who might have imagined that he would assemble a cabinet and team of advisors attuned to the needs of the blue-collar worker or man in the street, it should be becoming crystal clear by now that they have been hoodwinked. Instead, the Trump Administration is turning out to be the domain of big business, billionaires, and Goldman Sachs. How anyone could have imagined that a man who has never worked a blue-collar day in his life nor associated with ordinary people until his run for the presidency would be genuinely transformed into the champion of the working class always defied logic. Given that Trump has so far refused to personally divest himself of his business interests during his presidency, it is plain for all to see that he plans to enrich himself and his family on the backs of the American economy. Tillerson’s appointment would be consistent with that objective.
The very idea that Trump would propel Tillerson to the role of Secretary of State is a real slap in the face to the rest of the world. America’s presumed top diplomat-in-waiting has no experience in government, or outside of Exxon Mobil. He is best known for arranging a $500 billion deal with Russia’s Rosneft to jointly drill for oil in the Arctic and Siberia, until it was side tracked by the Obama Administration’s sanctions against Russia in return for the forced annexation of Crimea. Tillerson knows how to get a deal done, but there is no evidence -at all – that he has any of the skills ordinarily associated with a diplomat, such as tactfulness, sensitivity, discretion, finesse, judiciousness, or prudence. Perhaps that is the point — Trump did not want to put in place a Secretary of State with traditional skills of diplomacy, because, to him, the world is about extracting maximum advantage from one’s allies and opponents, not arriving at solutions where all parties’ needs are met.
By comparison, Bolton has good diplomatic credentials. Apart from his brief stint at the UN, Bolton was an Undersecretary of State, has held a number of other positions in government and at prestigious think tanks in Washington, and won praise for his work in establishing the Proliferation Security Initiative. However, some of his critics have alleged that Bolton has tried to spin intelligence to support his own political views. His bluntness has earned him a variety of governmental enemies, with Iran’s foreign ministry having called him “rude” and “undiplomatic”, and North Korea’s government having referred to him as “human scum”. This is not a particularly good place to start if one of the Trump Administration’s foreign policy objectives is to make progress with America’s most ardent foes. It would appear that his objective is exactly the opposite.
What is clear is that one of Trump’s near-term goals is to strengthen America’s relationship with Russia. Given that Tillerson is extremely close with Putin, his role in the government would certainly be a step in that direction. But Russia is an issue in which Tillerson and Bolton will surely butt heads. As a high-profile neocon, Bolton has a traditional view of Russia as ‘the enemy’. How the two will come to terms with that remains to be seen. While Bolton shares Trump’s view vis-à-vis Iran, North Korea and a variety of other foreign policy concerns, as a member of the failed Washington foreign policy elite that Trump so frequently and virulently opposed on the campaign trail, Bolton’s appointment is yet another fundamental contradiction that must leave Trump supporters scratching their heads.
Trump’s approach to creating a government, running the government, and crafting a foreign policy has all the makings of a business transaction in which he imagines that everyone else in the world can’t wait to ‘do business’ with America, and that the U.S. is the world’s first choice – for everything. That is obviously his world view, which, he believes, has been the key to his success, and is central to America’s future success. He, and America, are in for a rude awakening with this approach, however. Many of its allies – particularly in Europe — are already wondering if Trump’s America is worth being allied with, questioning basic tenets of American post-war foreign policy, and whether the U.S. can be depended upon to adhere to its historical and ‘binding’ security, aid, and other commitments. America’s enemies must already have come to the conclusion that, at least for the next four years, there is no point in even trying to negotiate with a U.S. president and administration that subscribes to a ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ view of the world.
What seems clear is that the next four years are going to be a period of profound transformation – for America and the world. Trump is riding an alternative political wave already under way in countries such as the UK, the Philippines and Turkey. Rather than attempting to put a lid on the unraveling of the West’s post-war security and foreign policy architecture, Trump is intent on ensuring that it proceeds full throttle. America voted in a president who promised to be a change agent, and we are all now on an out of control roller coaster ride that will have previously unheard of twists, turns, and perils. With foreign policy being reduced to a series of business transactions, and with diplomacy now a function of who can shout the loudest and hurl the worst obscenity, anything is possible.
*Daniel Wagner is Managing Director of Risk Cooperative, and co-author of the new book “Global Risk Agility and Decision Making”.