NEW YORK — President Donald Trump’s sudden firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is unlikely to have any immediate major impact on U.S. relations at the United Nations, international affairs experts say. Already, Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., had limited Tillerson’s involvement in work at the U.N., said U.N. expert Richard Gowan.
“Haley effectively cut Tillerson out of U.N. issues,” Gowan wrote in an email to Devex.
Mike Pompeo, the current director of the Central Intelligence Agency and Trump’s pick to succeed Tillerson, “will have to tread carefully with [Haley],” Gowan continued.
“Haley has proved to be a resilient and adept political player, and it is not worth picking fights with her,” Gowan said. “That said, Haley was also a contender to replace Tillerson last year, and the fact that Pompeo won that race may mean he is a bit more confident in his dealings with USUN.”
“In substantive terms, however, I suspect that we will see more of the same in US-UN relations. Pompeo, Haley, and Trump will all pursue hard lines on Iran and Palestine. If the current opening with North Korea fades away, they will also turn to the Security Council to ratchet up pressure on Pyongyang again. So I see no big changes in American UN policy coming out of all this,” Gowan said.
Trump’s early Tuesday announcement of Tillerson’s firing — posted on Twitter — came shortly after Tillerson returned from his first trip to Africa one day early. During that trip, Tillerson diverged from Trump, saying that the poisoning of a former spy and his daughter in the U.K. “clearly came from Russia,” as the AP reported.
Tillerson’s firing was “predictable,” as Samantha Power, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. under President Barack Obama, pointed out on Twitter. But Power said the way Trump carried out the dismissal — reportedly not directly informing Tillerson — offers some insight into how the president conducts foreign policy. She called it: “Cold, impetuous, classless, needlessly destabilizing.”
News reports first emerged in November that Trump favored Pompeo as a successor to Tillerson. Pompeo, an outspoken critic of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her handling of the Benghazi attacks, has also been vocal on dismantling the Iran nuclear agreement — but less vocal on Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections.
But Haley is already a “leading hawk” on Iran, Gowan points out.
During Tillerson’s appointment hearings last January, the former ExxonMobil CEO questioned the “clear connection” between climate change and extreme weather, saying at the time, “There’s some literature that suggests that and there’s some literature that says it is inconclusive.” He appeared to back from U.S. foreign health assistance programs, such as PEPFAR, but said that funding for women’s health (and its link to abortion) needs to be reexamined.
In May, Tillerson approved an expanded version of the Mexico City Policy — also referred to as the “global gag rule,” and officially called the “Protecting Life in Global Assistance.” It tied all U.S. global health assistance to the condition that foreign NGOs do not engage in any abortion services or counseling.
During his 14-month term, Tillerson’s downsizing of the State Department — keeping many positions vacant — and failure to influence foreign policy at the White House led to some criticisms of his effectiveness. Tillerson made just a few appearances at the United Nations, speaking once to address North Korea’s ambassador, saying the U.S. will never accept a nuclear North Korea. He halved the number of people representing the U.S. during the General Assembly in September.
Pompeo’s lack of experience as a diplomat means he may be unaccustomed to handling some of the public roles Tillerson was tasked with, as Elizabeth Saunders, a political science professor at George Washington University, stated on Twitter.
But Saunders also said Pompeo and Trump’s political closeness and shared opinions on key issues may make it easier to analyze U.S. foreign policy and could heal a widely perceived rift between the White House and Tillerson’s State Department. “[Tillerson’s firing is] likely to decrease the daylight between the White House and Foggy Bottom, at least in terms of public disagreement. That can be good for clarity of policy. It may make it harder for outsiders to get a window into policy debates,” Saunders wrote.
Pompeo’s executive experience overseeing the CIA, plus his relationship with Trump, could make him “more effective,” says Ilan Goldenberg, Middle East security director at the think tank Center for a New American Security.
Yet a true “game-changer” in U.S.-U.N. relations could still come if rumors are true that John Bolton, former ambassador to the U.N. under the George W. Bush administration, takes over H.R. McMaster’s job as national security advisor.
“The real game-changer would be if John Bolton takes over as National Security Advisor, as is widely rumored to be on the cards. Bolton truly despises the UN, and would probably push Haley to weaken the organization more decisively than she has so far,” according to Gowan.