Trump's Secretary of State Pick May Help Direct Shift in U.S. Foreign Policy

Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin presents ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson with a Russian medal at an award ceremony
Russian President Vladimir Putin presents ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson with a Russian medal at an award ceremony of heads and employees of energy companies in St. Petersburg, Russia, 2012. Mikhail Klimentyev / Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

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By Perry Bacon Jr. and Abigail Williams

Donald Trump laid out a wholesale rethinking of American foreign policy during his campaign.

If confirmed by the Senate, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, who the president-elect tapped as secretary of state on Tuesday, would have to implement that vision.

That work will likely include efforts to ease tensions between the U.S. and Russia, withdrawing from global agreements on climate change and Iran’s nuclear weapons program, limiting the number of refugees coming to America, and ending the American-backed push to force Syria’s Bashar Assad from power.

Tillerson has no government experience, having worked at Exxon since 1975. But in Trump’s view, Tillerson has the kind of global deal-making experience he is looking for.

“The thing I like best about Rex Tillerson is that he has vast experience at dealing successfully with all types of foreign governments,” the president-elect said in a Twitter message on Tuesday.

What does Trump want Tillerson to do? Here is how the real estate mogul described his foreign policy vision in a major speech in September.

"We want to achieve a stable, peaceful world with less conflict and more common ground,” Trump said. “I am proposing a new foreign policy focused on advancing America’s core national interests, promoting regional stability, and producing an easing of tensions in the world. This will require rethinking the failed policies of the past.”

He added, “We can make new friends, rebuild old alliances, and bring new allies into the fold.”

Here’s a closer look at some of the key issues Tillerson will handle if he is confirmed by the Senate.


The most controversial part of Tillerson's nomination is his connections to Russia and Vladimir Putin, who in 2013 presented the oil and gas company executive an Order of Friendship, an award the Russian government gives to non-citizens who it wants to honor.

Relations between the U.S. and Russia are at perhaps their worst right now since the end of the Cold War. The European Union and the United States enacted a series of sanctions against Russia in 2014, after Russia took control of Crimea, a region that had been part of Ukraine. The Russian government has strongly backed Assad in Syria’s civil war, despite Obama calls for him to step down and American support for civil rebels.

Most importantly, the U.S. government has concluded that Russia intentionally interfered in the 2016 American elections by hacking and releasing e-mails from the Democratic National Committee and a top Hillary Clinton adviser. The CIA says that Russia was intentionally trying to get Trump elected.

Trump calls that assertion "ridiculous."

Trump says that America can have a less tense relationship with Russia. In a press conference in July, the businessman suggested he would consider both lifting U.S. sanctions against Russia and formally recognizing Russian control of Crimea. He could accomplish both through his executive authority.

And on this issue, Trump’s secretary of state choice was telling. Mitt Romney, who Trump also considered for the post, has blasted Putin’s government. Tillerson, on the other hand, in his role at Exxon, expressed skepticism about the sanctions against Russia.


During the campaign, Trump called for a more aggressive posture toward China, at least on economic issues. He frequently suggested he would rethink American trade with the world’s most populous nation, arguing current policy allows China to “rape our country” and threatening tariffs on Chinese-made goods imported to the U.S.

Donald Trump and Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen.STAFF / AFP - Getty Images

In the weeks after Election Day, Trump had an unprecedented phone conversation with Taiwan's president and said he would also reconsider the American “One China” policy that does not recognize Taiwan as an independent nation.

China will also be influential in U.S. efforts, which Trump says he will continue, to prevent North Korea from further developing its nuclear weapons program.

The Middle East

Trump has said he broadly wants a pullback from U.S. engagement in the Middle East.

In a interview last month with the Wall Street Journal, Trump suggested the U.S. should better hone in on fighting ISIS, rather than supporting rebel efforts to unseat Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Russia factors into his calculations given that nation's support of the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war.

If if the U.S. attacks Assad, Trump said, "we end up fighting Russia, fighting Syria."

Trump laid out three other key ideas on Middle East policy during the campaign.

He wants to rethink the multi-national agreement on Iran’s nuclear weapons and generally be tougher with the Iranian regime. And he wants to have a close relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who feuded with the Obama administration on a number of issues.

One of Trump’s most specific promises during the campaign was changing how America talks about terrorism. The George W. Bush and Obama administrations argued that using terms like “radical Islam” both suggest the U.S is in a religious war and misidentify the problem, since the overwhelming majority of Muslims don’t identify with or support ISIS.

But the president-elect insists that the U.S. must publicly say that ISIS and other groups are Islamic, making clear who the U.S. is fighting against.

Tillerson may be expected to use such language as America’s top diplomat.

Global agreements

Trump has expressed skepticism at times about NATO and the Paris climate change agreement. Tillerson would be in charge of implementing the president-elect’s vision of getting European nations to put more money into NATO, and getting the U.S. out of the climate change agreement.


The State Department generally sets policy for how many refugees the U.S. will accept and from what nations. During his campaign,Trump suggested that fewer refugees should be admitted, particularly from nations with large Muslim populations.