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A closer look at Secretary Rex Tillerson and his foreign policy perspective

Constructive alternatives to counter-terror & stabilisation, International conflict prevention advocacy

As Rex Tillerson begins his tenure as Secretary of State in the Trump Administration, Saferworld’s Washington office reviews his recent responses to Senator Cardin’s comprehensive foreign policy inquiry as well as Sec. Tillerson’s welcome remarks to State Department staff. His remarks are particularly useful in providing insight into his world view, as he has no history of public service, nor has he made previous statements on many of the issues he will be dealing with in his new role.

Preventing violent conflict

First and foremost, we commend Secretary Rex Tillerson’s commitment to prioritizing civil society engagement in the State Department, in order to support the development of evidence-based policy and programming and to provide a constructive challenge to US foreign policy. We also hope that he will keep to his commitment to stand with those “who fight against discrimination worldwide.” Civil society has a vital role in ensuring sustainable gains in open, accountable and inclusive democracies around the world. In the face of growing government restrictions and increasing persecution of civil society activists in many contexts, his enthusiasm to work with not only US-based non-governmental organizations but also with local civil society actors across the globe is more important than ever.

Encouragingly, he also showed an understanding of the vital role of early warning and action in conflict and atrocity prevention. “What we know…is that atrocity crimes tend not to happen suddenly,” he wrote. “[T]here are early warning signs which serve as indication of the need for diplomatic action.” We couldn’t agree more: researching conflict dynamics and implementing proactive responses ‘upstream’ is a core part of Saferworld’s work. He also alluded to a strengthened operational focus on the structural drivers and causes of violence and instability to avoid repetitive cycles of crisis response – a key recommendation from our recent briefing, A Better State of Peace.

Our research suggests that a proactive and conflict prevention-focused US foreign policy would enable better understanding of the conditions that lead to instability and ultimately better anticipation of violence, allowing the administration to make longer-term strategic investments in addressing underlying structural drivers of conflict before they result in violence or other resumption of hostilities. This makes a difference in more ways than one – conflict prevention has been found to be 60 times more cost effective than intervening after violence breaks out. In many cases, this approach would not require increased resources but rather a redistribution of existing efforts.

State Department leadership and USAID

However, a more proactive and preventive foreign policy would require the State Department – which has the necessary expertise – to lead US foreign policy development and implementation, rather than the Department of Defense to which this power has slowly shifted since 9/11. In his answers to Senator Cardin, Sec. Tillerson firmly positioned the State Department as the leader of foreign policy and engagement, stating that “the Secretary of State is the principal foreign policy advisor to the President.” While he has the right idea in principle, in order to gain more influence he will need to push back on the Department of Defense and Trump’s personal advisors such as Steve Bannon, who have taken a strong role in foreign policy so far. Bannon especially has expressed a desire, as early as 2014, to shape American foreign policy through his own islamophobic and nationalist worldview, and currently acts as President Trump’s closest advisor. Sec. Tillerson now must back up his statements by showing that he can wrest control away from these other actors.

Sec. Tillerson confirmed the need for an empowered USAID Administrator, though he stopped short of outlining what that means in practice. The placement of USAID under the State Department can undermine the effectiveness of American foreign assistance by creating confusion and overlapping mandates. The State Department has increasingly attempted to interfere in USAID programs, even ordering USAID staff to change contracts with local partners in order to change programs’ focus. USAID requires the flexibility and political autonomy to respond to changes in global contexts and dynamics and to avoid the prioritization of American politics and security at the expense of local needs. Local communities know when assistance is provided based on American national security interests, not the community’s needs, which in turn can lead to resentment and a resistance to future aid. Saferworld produced a series of recommendations on the balance of development and diplomacy in US foreign policy, including on the need to unfetter USAID from the State Department so that it can effectively guide its own policies and programs.

Standing on his own

Sec. Tillerson broke with several of the Trump Administration’s positions, including on refugees and US involvement at the United Nations, stating that he “[does] not believe anyone should be discriminated against based on their religion or nationality.” We hope that he will take this inclusive position to the Administration in an attempt to change current policies on refugee resettlement. Sec. Tillerson also supports the UN, stating that “multilateral institutions can be effective instruments for advancing U.S. interests and exercising global leadership.” However, he also believes in conditioning our UN-assessed contributions – the US contributes 22 per cent of the UN budget and 29 per cent of the peacekeeping budget – to exert more control. This could endanger large parts of the UN and have long-term global destabilizing effects. The UN focuses on many US priorities, such as preventing violent extremism, disaster assistance and management, global economic development and the peaceful resolution of conflict. In a heavily globalized world, no country can go it alone, and the attempt to do so undermines the relationships on which sustainable peace and security depend.

Violent extremism and Islam

Although there was a great deal of good in Sec. Tillerson’s responses, we were deeply concerned about his understanding of, and his approach to violent extremism. By framing the issue as “radical Islamic terrorism,” Sec. Tillerson fails to see the deep complexity of this issue, excluding many perpetrators of violence who draw inspiration from sources other than ‘radical Islam.’ At the same time, he also colors an entire religion and its followers as likely perpetrators. Perhaps more importantly, Sec. Tillerson exclusively links violent extremist movements to religious ideologies. Saferworld and others’ research into the drivers of, and responses to violent extremism and has found that a range of other factors – perceptions of isolation, marginalization and injustice, lack of access to justice, trauma and exposure to violence –are as important as ideology or economic deprivation in motivating those who take up extremist violence. As such, Sec. Tillerson fails to understand or address the links between violent extremism and its root causes, despite having so accurately identified the need to address root causes in conflict and atrocity prevention.  

Sec. Tillerson should lead US foreign policy with a whole-of-society approach that focuses on security and justice sector reforms, improving local governance accountability and responsiveness, promoting inclusive institutions and decision-making processes, reducing corruption, and seeking to resolve divisions, injustices and trauma. There is reason to hope that Sec. Tillerson could be a strong Secretary of State, but the gulf that exists between his statements and the President’s actions are a major hurdle that he must overcome. Along with many civil society groups, we hope he keeps his commitment to engage meaningfully with and protect civil society at home and abroad.

Ursala Knudsen-Latta is Saferworld's Research and Policy Officer based in Washington, DC.

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There is reason to hope that Sec. Tillerson could be a strong Secretary of State, but the gulf that exists between his statements and the President’s actions are a major hurdle that he must overcome.

Ursala Knudsen-Latta

The opinions expressed in articles or comments on this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions or policies of Saferworld. Saferworld is not responsible for the accuracy of the information in blog articles written by guest contributors.

Please note that comments on blog posts are moderated, and anything offensive or threatening may be removed.

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