Trump’s foreign policy is incoherent

From Syria to Russia, the administration doesn’t seem to agree on its messaging — or who should deliver it.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, center, accompanied by U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley, left, arrives to a ministerial Security Council meeting at United Nations headquarters. CREDIT: AP Photo/Richard Drew
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, center, accompanied by U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley, left, arrives to a ministerial Security Council meeting at United Nations headquarters. CREDIT: AP Photo/Richard Drew

In an email seen by the New York Times, diplomats requested that United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley aides use cues from Tillerson’s department when making comments, especially on high-profile topics.

Her remarks should be “re-cleared with Washington if they are substantively different from the building blocks, or if they are on a high-profile issue such as Syria, Iran, Israel-Palestine, or the D.P.R.K. [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea],” the email read. The article noted that neither the State Department nor the United States mission at the United Nations had responded for comment.

Tensions between the former South Carolina governor’s bolder approach to foreign policy and Tillerson’s more reserved method have been on the rise for some time. Haley, outspoken on foreign policy and firm in her stances, has drawn a contrast with the more terse and tight-lipped Tillerson, a former oil businessman who has never held office before and tends to stay out of the public eye. The result has been in Haley’s favor: she is seen as far more assertive and involved in policy-making decisions, while Tillerson is something of a background figure.

The email from State Department officials seems to underscore this dynamic — especially in regard to the “high-profile issues” named. Haley has notably broken with Tillerson on several major international topics, often seeming to drive policy decisions far more than the Secretary of State does.


The difference has been most striking when it comes to Syria. As recently as late March, the Trump administration made it clear that removing Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad from power was not a high priority, something Tillerson and Haley initially seemed to agree upon. Haley emphasized to reporters at the time that the United States did not intend to focus on the issue.

“And when we’re looking at this, it’s about changing our priorities, and our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out,” she said. “Our priority is to really look at how do we get things done, who do we need to work with to really make a difference for the people in Syria.” Tillerson echoed the sentiment during an appearance in Turkey.

But then everything changed. A day after Assad carried out a chemical weapons attack on a rebel-held town killing at least 70 people, their approaches diverged. While the State Department was slow to condemn the attack, Haley denounced the Assad regime on the floor of the United Nations Security Council.

“When the United Nations consistently fails in its duty to act collectively, there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action,” she said. “For the sake of the victims, I hope the rest of the council is finally willing to do the same.” She also took a hit at regime ally Russia, before holding up pictures of the destruction to drive home her point. “How many more children have to die before Russia cares?”

Shortly thereafter, 59 Tomahawk missiles were launched at a Syrian air base in a clear warning to the Assad regime. In the immediate aftermath, Haley emphasized that removing Assad from power would return to being a priority for the United States, as it was under the Obama administration. By contrast, Tillerson continued to emphasize targeting and removing ISIS over regime change.


The divide drove home the administration’s incoherent approach in Syria. “Trump made an 180 on this and it is a pretty striking 180,” Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the The Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, told ThinkProgress at the time, expressing worry about the suddenness of the shift. “It is concerning that Trump’s approach to Syria and maybe to foreign policy writ large is completely incoherent.”

Differences over Syria are not the only place where Haley and Tillerson have diverged. As CEO of ExxonMobil, Tillerson enjoyed a cozy relationship with the Russian government, especially President Vladimir Putin. Awarded the Russian Order of Friendship Prize in 2013, Tillerson’s business dealings with Russia have a long history. But U.S.-Russia relations have long been tense, and Tillerson’s personal ties have been put to the test. An ongoing conflict with Ukraine and the country’s military involvement in Syria have drawn ire from the international community. With the Senate currently investigating possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, Tillerson has been under pressure to hold Putin’s government accountable. During a high-profile meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov earlier this month, he worked to strike a balance, emphasizing areas of agreement between the two governments while also acknowledging that their relationship is at a low point.

Haley has been far less tempered. In her opening address to the U.N. Security Council she blasted Russia for its actions in Ukraine, especially with regards to eastern Ukraine, where a separatist movement remains ongoing, and the Crimean peninsula, annexed by Moscow in 2014. She later endorsed the view that Russia worked to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election, a striking shift from comments made by Trump. Her strong stance against Russia’s involvement in Syria rounds out a decidedly cold approach to dealings with the Kremlin, and places her in a position far more decided than the one staked out by Tillerson.

But as Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, wrote for the Washington Post earlier this month, Haley’s boldness is unsurprising. Many figures who have held her role before her have gone on to more prominent positions. What is unusual is the lack of pushback from the White House — something that may finally be shifting, if the recent chiding from the State Department is any indicator.

Asking Haley to take her cues from above rather than freewheeling could signal a shift in how the administration has handled foreign policy, especially in terms of Tillerson’s role.


Up until now, Tillerson has limited his meetings with foreign officials and press, preferring to remain in the background. That seems to be changing, but whether or not a coherent foreign policy will emerge is still debatable — something that became immediately apparent immediately following the email from State Department officials.

Speaking to NPR about rising tensions with North Korea on Thursday, Tillerson signaled that the United States would be open to direct talks with the country regarding nuclear weapons.

By Friday morning, that tone seemed to shift, with Tillerson asserting that military action was on the table.

“All options for responding to future provocations must remain on the table,” he said. “Diplomatic and financial leverage or power will be backed up by willingness to counteract North Korean aggression with military action, if necessary.”