Editor’s Note: Samantha Vinograd is a CNN national security analyst who served on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council from 2009-2013. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
Samantha Vinograd: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's five-country tour faces a series of challenges -- largely thanks to the President
Trump has weakened the US's position in the world by withdrawing from key agreements and sending bullying tweets, she writes
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s ambitious five-country trip this month will be anything but easy, largely thanks to his boss President Donald Trump, who has compromised the standing of the United States in the world.
With stops in the Middle East, South Asia and Europe, Tillerson’s ability to negotiate on tough issues like Iran, North Korea and counterterrorism is crippled by both the well-known rift between him and Trump and the US’s diminished credibility as a reliable intermediary.
Arbitrary withdrawals from key international agreements like the Paris climate accords, a careless and mercurial commander-in-chief who undercuts his teams’ work with bullying tweets and a stronger China also have collectively weakened Tillerson’s bargaining position even further.
Given the rocky foundation that Trump has laid for the successful execution of US policy, Tillerson will struggle to advance his top priorities. If Trump wants Tillerson to succeed, he should use the week to express confidence (publicly and privately) in his secretary of state and diminish any daylight between them.
Tillerson’s high-octane travel agenda, under different circumstances, could serve several important objectives. Stopping in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Pakistan, India and Switzerland could have allowed Tillerson – and the administration more generally – to discuss some of the most critical national security issues facing the globe.
These are some the biggest challenges Trump has created for Tillerson’s tri-continental road trip.
Gulf leaders prefer to negotiate directly with Trump
The US-Saudi relationship, a bulwark alliance over the last few decades, should be focusing on priorities like stabilizing the conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, the dispute with Qatar and regional stability overall. But in a kingdom where power is concentrated at the top, the Saudi king, crown prince and foreign minister are deeply aware of the endless headlines about Tillerson’s rumored departure.
The Saudis have typically preferred to negotiate directly with the White House on the most sensitive issues, and with the perceived undercutting of Tillerson by Trump, they can’t possibly have viewed Tillerson as an empowered negotiator when they met with him on Sunday.
We’ve seen this play out in Qatar as well. In June, when the Gulf dispute first broke out, Tillerson and Trump issued contradictory statements on how to handle Qatar, with Tillerson calling for negotiations and Trump chiding Qatar for not doing more to counter terrorism (a position Trump reversed shortly after).
The Qataris and the Saudis have little reason to think that what they discuss with Tillerson will bear much weight with Trump, so why waste time negotiating with him when they could just call the White House?
Trump has undermined US credibility
Tillerson’s credibility is further hindered by increasingly negative perceptions of the Trump administration both at home and abroad. Any intelligence agency worth its weight will provide Tillerson’s foreign counterparts with analysis showing decreasing faith in Trump. A recent CNN domestic poll put his domestic approval at 37% and a Pew poll of 37 countries indicated that just 22% expect Trump to do the right thing abroad.
China is moving in while American influence wanes
These numbers are even more worrisome in light of an increasingly strong China. On the heels of the 19th Party Congress, President Xi Jinping is beginning his second term with the full backing of his party and a broad mandate to pursue China’s regional and global ambitions.
Countries like Pakistan, where Tillerson will stop this week, will undoubtedly be attracted to an emboldened Xi rather than a weak Trump. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor – a Chinese funded infrastructure project in Pakistan valued at tens of billions of dollars – is a shining example of two countries growing closer as Chinese investments modernize infrastructure throughout Pakistan.
As the United States tries to convince Pakistan to take a stronger stance on terrorists within its borders – including the Haqqani network, responsible for kidnapping several Americans in recent years – it will struggle to make the case.
Pakistan did cooperate on freeing hostages recently, but any real shift in Afghanistan requires Pakistani leadership to make a strategic shift and place real resources and political capital behind stopping terrorist activity within and across its borders. Pakistan will likely be more focused on other priorities, such as Chinese business deals, which promise an immediate return.
Trump’s actions on key issues speak louder than his words
Indian officials are also unlikely to take Tillerson seriously. Tillerson will arrive in New Delhi to purportedly lay the foundation for a successful Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) in Hyderabad in November. According to the State Department, the GES aims to “showcase inspiring entrepreneurs and investors from around the world creating new opportunities for investment, partnership, and collaboration.”
Unfortunately, Trump’s ill-conceived immigration policy sets a discordant tone with the administration’s talking points on promoting entrepreneurship, setting Tillerson up to look both ineffective and willfully naïve. Suspending the expedited H1B visa process and delaying the international entrepreneur rule, which would have lowered barriers to entry for international entrepreneurs who have a proven track record of success, is a 180-degree turn from any public statement about making it easier for international entrepreneurs to contribute to the US economy.
Indians, in particular, are disproportionately impacted by the President’s tightening of H1B visa rules, which has led to friction in the relationship between the countries. In 2014, 70% of all approved H-1B petitions were from Indians, and Trump’s clamp down on these visa holders means fewer Indians with important skills can work easily in the US. This is a bilateral irritant that will likely increase in strength as Trump takes more steps to slow immigration flows into the US.
Get our free weekly newsletter
Similarly, Tillerson’s stop in Geneva to meet with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees is unlikely to accomplish much, as the US media reports on another potential clampdown on refugee admissions to the US – this time focusing on families of resettled refugees. The administration has reportedly drafted a plan that would slow admissions for refugees with families already resettled in the US until they can undergo further security checks.
This follows President Trump’s ill-conceived travel bans that targeted individuals from Muslim-majority countries. The administration has made no secret of its focus on stemming refugees flows into the United States.
The hubris of talking about entrepreneurship and refugees while pursuing contradictory domestic policies is not lost on many.
Tillerson’s trip – while covering many miles and likely motivated by good intentions – may do little to advance US national security interests. The President and his cabinet, including Tillerson, should therefore use the days before Trump’s Asia trip in November to button up their policy objectives and messaging.
That way they can start to repair some damage and convince the American public and key leaders around the globe that the United States is a credible, reliable and thoughtful world power.