Former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson is an unorthodox choice for secretary of state, but as his Senate confirmation hearing revealed, he is a pragmatist about engaging with the world as it is, rather than waiting for it to magically evolve into what grandstanding idealists from either the left or the right want it to be. Now that he is confirmed, he has an opportunity to re-anchor America into a stable world role after nearly two decades of foreign policy flailing. Already Tillerson has the backing of Henry Kissinger, who has also been informally counseling Trump. As Tillerson gets underway, can he shape Trump’s global strategy the way Kissinger did Richard Nixon’s?
Make no mistake: American foreign policy has indeed failed. It failed to prevent the rise of a peer competitor such as China, failed to entrench democracy in Arab and Latin American transition societies, and failed to integrate regional powers such as Russia and Iran into a liberal order. Barack Obama came into office seeking to change course from George W. Bush, but reluctantly remained a wartime president. Now it is Trump who pledges to break from nearly two decades of foreign policy failures, including the mishandling of Russia since the expansion of NATO in 1999 and the mismanagement of global trade since China’s entry into the WTO in 2001. Trump has professed admiration for Nixon and George H.W. Bush, two conservative but constructive realists who capitalized on fateful opportunities to engineer strategic shifts. As he enters the White House, there is no shortage of chances for him to follow in their footsteps.