With the exit of Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, a new chapter is set to begin in the Trump administrationâ€™s foreign policies. Certainly, this was not how president-elect Trump anticipated things to happen when he found that his preferred nominee as secretary of state Rudi Giuliani might run into headwinds in the Congress, and, therefore, settled for Tillerson in preference to names favored by the Washington establishment (John Bolton, David Petraeus, etc.) It was an â€œinspired choiceâ€ because Tillerson, with his background in international commerce and business, fitted into Trumpâ€™s conception of US diplomacy providing underpinning to America First.
But for a variety of reasons, Tillerson didnâ€™t measure up to that expectation. He instead ended up significantly contributing to the â€œre-militarizationâ€ of US foreign policies in the post-Obama era.
In immediate terms, the positive impact of Tillersonâ€™s dismissal may be felt on the US policies toward Syria. Despite Trumpâ€™s aversion to getting involved in new Middle Eastern wars and notwithstanding his pledge that the US role in Syria would be strictly limited to fighting the ISIS, Defence Secretary James Mattis is acting the John Wayne way by secretly pushing a hybrid war directed against Russia, Iran and the Assad regime. Some US lawmakers have questioned the USâ€™ intentions in Syria. But Mattis no longer has a free hand to push forward his agenda in Syria in the post-Tillerson scenario.
Meanwhile, rumors are swirling that after Tillerson, it is going to be National Security Advisor HR Macmasterâ€™s turn next to get the marching order from Trump. It will be interesting to see whether Trump selects a civilian as the next NSA.
From the Indian perspective, Tillersonâ€™s exit is of some interest insofar as he put the stamp on reviving the moribund idea of the â€˜Quadâ€™. HisÂ speech at the CSIS last OctoberÂ marked the high point in the US rhetoric over â€œIndo-Pacificâ€. Tillerson said all the right things to encourage India to pursue the hardline course toward China. Indeed, Tillersonâ€™s remarks aimed at creating the setting for his first and only visit to Delhi in late October, primarily to make a strong pitch for theÂ Lockheed Martinâ€™s bid to persuade India to accept the production line of the outmoded F-16 jet fighter. (India of course balked.)
But much water has flown down the Ganges since then. If Trumpâ€™s visit to China in November underscored the high importance he attaches to constructive engagement with China, his Asian tour exposed that the US lacked an alternate regional strategy to rival Chinaâ€™s expanding influence in Asia. Equally, the APEC and ASEAN summits also displayed that tensions in the South China Sea were abating and that the new â€˜hot spotâ€™ is going to be North Korea (where the US desperately needs Chinaâ€™s help.)
Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Partyâ€™s party congress asserted that Chinaâ€™s rise is a geopolitical reality that cannot be â€˜containedâ€™ anymore. All this â€” plus, of course, the â€œlessonsâ€ from the Doklam faceoff â€“ has prompted a rethink in Indiaâ€™s own regional strategy in a direction that one may call a â€˜demilitarizationâ€™ of sorts of our foreign policy too. The jettisoning of muscularity in relations with the South Asian neighbors â€“ Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives â€“ testifies to it. The stirrings in India-China relations confirm that India is conclusively bidding farewell to the â€˜Quadâ€™.
On the whole, Indian foreign policy is discovering that there is a whole world lying out there beyond the â€œdefining partnershipâ€ with the US. Simply put, India wonâ€™t miss Tillerson.