Wed | Jan 16, 2019

Editorial | In the aftermath of Tillerson

Published:Thursday | March 15, 2018 | 12:00 AM

Many people will claim that Rex Tillerson's most insightful observation during his tenure as America's secretary of state was his reference to President Donald Trump as "a f.... g moron". That is why, rather than for the reason she perceives, Kamina Johnson Smith, Jamaica's foreign minister, may be right in her absence of concern for Mr Tillerson's ignominious firing this week. It is questioned whether Mr Trump sees the world rationally.

Mr Tillerson made a fleeting visit to Jamaica and held talks with Mrs Johnson Smith and Prime Minister Andrew Holness, during which the US's then top diplomat reiterated the strength of the relationship between Kingston and Washington and promised to deepen that cooperation.

"Jamaica and the United States of America have always had strong ties of cooperation, trade and friendship and we intend to build on same," said Mrs Johnson Smith in reaction to the disclosure that Mr Trump had fired Mr Tillerson via Twitter. It is against that background, and Mr Tillerson's undertaking, that the foreign minister was "not concerned" at his departure and his imminent replacement by Mike Pompeo, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Implicit in Mrs Johnson Smith's statement is her, and presumably the Jamaican Government's, confidence in America's institutional arrangements and its capacity to sustain continuity. Of that, in the time of Trump, this newspaper is not sanguine. Our scepticism, primarily, rests on three plants.

First, anything upon which Mr Tillerson pronounced or offered in Kingston is unlikely to have been bankable. He may have had all the trappings of the office of secretary of state, but little of the authority of his predecessors. Mr Tillerson's diplomacy was often publicly and humiliatingly undercut by Mr Trump's agenda.

For instance, when Mr Tillerson started back channel talk with the North Koreans over their nuclear programme, Mr Trump tweeted that his secretary of state was wasting his time attempting discussions with "Little Rocket Man" (North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un). Yet, Mr Trump is now planning to meet Mr Kim. Or when the Saudis led three of their Gulf region partners in a blockade of Qatar over its relationship with Iran and Mr Tillerson called for restraint, Mr Trump weakened his hand by branding Qatar, the host of a large US military base, a long-term supporter of terrorism.


Transactional relationships


Mr Tillerson, the former head of Exxon, was complicit of America's foreign policy and the diminution of its global standing in the time of Trump, and ultimately, in his hoisting by a Trumpian petard. He agreed to reductions of nearly 50 per cent in the State Department's budget over two financial years and decimated its ranks of top staff. Forty ambassador posts remain unfilled around the world, including in Jamaica.

In other words, the institutional memory and the systems upon which America's foreign policy has long been constructed is being undermined in favour of the transactional relationships preferred by Mr Trump, marketed as his America First philosophy. It is possible that anything agreed by Rex Tillerson during his discussions with Mrs Johnson Smith and Prime Minister Holness would not have registered in a State Department denuded of its best talent.

From the perspective of Jamaica and the Caribbean, however, a greater danger to maintaining and expanding a relationship with the United States is that America under Trump just might not care. There is no signal that this region, under the current president, registers on the dial at the White House, or that Mr Tillerson's visit to Jamaica was other than of his own volition.

Of course, relations with the United States, an important and powerful neighbour where large number of Jamaicans live, is important to us. So, we appreciate our Government's optimism of an American diplomacy that appreciates the Caribbean's strategic neighbourliness. The question is whether Mr Trump and Mr Pompeo share this world view.