On Iran, it looks likely Trump will decline this month to certify the nuclear deal reached between the Islamic republic and the international community. Tillerson and the rest of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment have said the deal isn’t perfect, but Iran is complying with it. (Tillerson has since hardened his position on the deal, seemingly making Trump’s decision all but certain.)
Then, of course, there is North Korea and Sunday’s tweets, the latest in a series of mixed messages from the president and his secretary of state. In August, amid repeated missile tests by North Korea and Trump’s threat to respond with “fire and fury,” Tillerson played up a diplomatic solution, saying “Americans should sleep well at night.” Just hours later, Trump tweeted that the U.S. nuclear arsenal “is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before....Hopefully we will never have to use this power, but there will never be a time that we are not the most powerful nation in the world!”
Trump’s seemingly off-the-cuff remarks on matters that demand delicate diplomacy have been compared to President Richard Nixon’s “madman theory,” in which the 37th American president wanted the nation’s enemies to believe he was insane and hence capable of anything. But as my colleague David Graham pointed out, because Trump has a history of not following through on his threats, “an equally likely—or even more likely—outcome is that North Korea will conclude that [he] is capable of nothing, based on past results.”
What the tweets will almost certainly do is undermine Tillerson and U.S. diplomatic efforts, given that they came a day after the secretary of state said in Beijing that the United States has “three channels open to Pyongyang.” Tillerson also said the U.S. was talking to North Korea “directly” and not through China, which the secretary of state is visiting to, among other things, shore up diplomacy on North Korea.
When senior foreign officials meet their cabinet-level counterparts from the United States, they like to know they are dealing with someone who has the president’s ear. It’s not quite clear whether Tillerson does. He has described his relationship with Trump as good, but news accounts suggest his influence in the White House is thin—and tweets like Sunday’s reinforce that narrative. Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has made the kinds of policy speeches normally given by the secretary of state, the official in charge of U.S. foreign policy, leading to speculation that she has her eye on his job. (Responding to those reports, Tillerson said: “We have a secretary of state currently, and I think he’s planning to hang around.”)
Personnel issues aside, Tillerson’s critics say that in the absence of strong U.S. leadership on foreign-policy issues, other countries, notably China and Russia, are trying to fill the void. That’s certainly true on North Korea, where China, by far its largest trade partner and its major political ally, has emerged as pivotal to any diplomatic solution. While the U.S. and China agree on the need for a denuclearized Korean Peninsula, their prescriptions of how to get there vary. Any resolution will almost certainly take those differences into account.