WALTER HAMILTON. Rex Tillerson and Australia’s national interest

Jan 14, 2017

President-elect Donald Trump’s Cabinet picks are being cross-examined in public for the first time. Here begins the real business of assessing how a Trump administration might behave––in more than 140 characters. The indications so far suggest the need for an early reappraisal.  

As an Australian watching Rex Tillerson’s confirmation hearing before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I could not but notice that US relations with Australia were never mentioned during some nine hours of questions and answers.

That omission aside, the event was an important opportunity to assess the Secretary of State-designate from the point of view of Australia’s vital interests.

These interests, I believe, include maintaining access to overseas markets for our trade goods; developing multilateral agreements that bind nations together by expanding shared interests; tackling climate change, an imminent threat to regional communities living at or near sea level; and the peacefully resolving regional disputes before they deteriorate into military conflicts.

Here’s what Tillerson said relevant to these interests.

Open trade

Tillerson, unlike Trump, did not condemn NAFTA or TPP. He blithely reinterpreted Trump to mean only that ‘NAFTA needs a re-look’. Furthermore, ‘I do not oppose TPP; I share some of his [Trump’s] views on whether the present agreement serves all of America’s interests best’.

More generally, Tillerson affirmed the conventional free-market mantra that strong economic alliances helped to ‘project American values’, which was ‘critical to the success of our foreign policy’.

Multilateral agreements 

Tillerson’s attitude varied depending on the issue. He strongly affirmed the US military commitment to its NATO partners and spoke of ‘using ASEAN’ to counter China’s actions in the South China Sea (but made no reference to ANZUS.) On the other hand, he suggested that the US should not drive international efforts to combat climate change.

Climate change 

The former CEO of Exxon-Mobil expressed the view that the facts of climate change were ‘indisputable’, but evidence of a connection to human activities was ‘not conclusive’. This lack of clarity, he added, ‘doesn’t mean we should do nothing’, i.e. the US should ‘maintain a seat at the table’ of international climate change negotiations.

Tillerson reiterated his preference for a carbon tax rather than what he called the present ‘hodgepodge’ of measures––but only if all revenues collected were used to compensate those (e.g. companies) affected by the tax. And how foreign aid was used to provide vital electricity to developing countries should be determined by ‘efficiency’, which might include the funding of coal-fired power stations.

Tillerson said the Trump administration would undertake a complete review of climate policy based on the principle of ‘America first’. ‘Countries that act alone,’ he added, ‘are probably only harming themselves.’

If any one group in or outside of government in Australia has reason to be concerned by Tillerson’s appointment, it would seem to be climate activists.

Conflict resolution 

  1. China’s island building in the South China Sea. Tillerson directed some of his strongest comments to this issue, which he widened to include China’s dispute with Japan over the Senkaku Islands. China’s actions were ‘illegal’ and akin to Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
    ‘We going to have to send China a clear message that, first, the island building stops and, second, your access to those islands is not going to be allowed.’
    This was perhaps the most consequential statement, from an Australian defence and foreign policy perspective, of Tillerson’s entire testimony.
    Curiously, he was not asked how the US would, or could, prevent China accessing the islands.
    While Tillerson did not call into question the ‘two-China policy’, he avoided the phrase. (Just as he avoided using the phrase ‘two-state solution’ for a resolution of the Middle East conflict; he called this outcome ‘a dream’ more likely to be attained by some future generation. His pro-Israel views were classic Republican-think.)
  2. A nuclear Japan and South Korea?
    Tillerson explicitly contradicted Trump’s suggestion that these nations might be better off acquiring nuclear weapons. Nuclear non-proliferation should remain the goal, he said.
  3. The North Korean nuclear threat.
    Without endorsing Trump’s ‘will never happen’ tweet, Tillerson said ‘we have the capabilities to bring a missile test down’. This, however, was not an option he was ‘signing up for today’. He emphasised the importance of working with allies Japan and South Korea. Taken together with his statement on issue (b), it suggested that he saw the need to calm anxieties in Northeast Asia stirred up by Trump’s statements.
  4. Extra-judicial killings in the Philippines.
    Tillerson repeatedly declined to condemn the reported involvement of the Duterte administration in thousands of extra-judicial killings in the Philippines. He needed ‘more information’. He suggested that any US response should take account of America’s ‘long-standing friendship’ with that country.

It seemed Tillerson was invoking the formula he enunciated, with unusual clarity, on several occasions: that human rights values would only be ‘trumped’ (his word!) by a concern to protect the US national interest. Another application of this formula was Saudi Arabia, which he refused to label as a human rights violator.

Or, a Boy Scout was still a Boy Scout even if old ladies sometimes were left to take on the traffic alone.

Overall, Tillerson came across as a calm, well-prepared, quietly self-confident individual––a sharp contrast to Trump––whose political philosophy, to the extent that he expressed one, leaned towards the conservative wing of the Republican Party. However, apart from an instinctive adherence to ‘free market’ arguments, he did not sound like an ideologue (in this respect he resembled the flip-flopping Trump).

Tillerson favoured maintaining US sanctions on Russia, at least for the time being; he favoured keeping the Nuclear Deal with Iran, while preparing for what comes next; he claimed Trump’s Mexican Wall was just his way of articulating the need to deal with illegal crossings, pending a decision on means ‘yet to be determined’; and, without directly criticising Trump’s Muslim Registry, he made it clear he opposed the targeting of ‘one group’.

All these statements indicated an intention to walk the future President back from his more outlandish policy prescriptions, while sharing his feelings about the underlying problems. When Tillerson was asked whether the Iraq War was a ‘mistake’, for instance, he said it was ‘well intended’ but had ‘unintended consequences’. Nobody needed to feel offended. He might try to manage Trump with similar sophistry.

(The contradiction inherent in his analysis––how can intentions be well conceived that fail to anticipate consequences?––reemerged when he claimed that Russia’s objectives were ‘not unpredictable’ and then admitted that its invasion of Crimea had taken him (the Russia expert) ‘by surprise’.)

So it was not a perfect performance, by any means.

Nevertheless, although Tillerson more than once declared his loyalty to Trump, ‘the boss’, he sounded very much his own man. I could see him perhaps forming an alliance with Defense Secretary-designate General James Mattis in the counsels of government, acting as a restraining influence on hot heads like General Michael Flynn, Trump’s National Security Advisor. One at least hopes so.

I have spent time trying to distill Tillerson’s comments because I share New York Times columnist David Brook’s view that much too much attention is being paid to Trump’s endless tweets. They should be regarded, says Brooks, as snowflakes that melt before they hit the ground. Trump, I believe, will be gradually absorbed, like the snowflakes, into the complex ‘ground’ of policy-making, compromise and inter-agency brokerage.

Tillerson and Mattis’s backgrounds have equipped them with the necessary skills to negotiate safer pathways, much more, certainly, than someone who prefers to think in 140 characters or less. If this amounts to a ‘don’t panic’ rather than a ‘don’t worry’ reassurance, the distinction is still worth making.

It’s time to take stock of what the incoming administration might really mean for Australia’s interests, by recognising where the real power is likely to reside, and leave the ‘screaming headline’ merchants to their ephemeral trade.

Walter Hamilton has reported for news organisations, including the ABC, from London, Singapore and Tokyo.

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