Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein



Republican presidents since World War II have selected secretaries of state who carry out White House priorities in foreign policy and don't aspire to make policy. Rex Tillerson, President Trump's choice, is acquiring what his predecessors learned: the president makes policy; the secretary of state explains and implements it. Tillerson failed in the end to grasp that reality.

The press roundly criticizes Tillerson for making huge cuts in Foreign Service personnel and other State Department staff and suggests he will resign by the end of the year. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius questioned that view in a column titled "Tillerson is still standing," (Nov. 22). He suggested Tillerson has tried to do what the president wants: cut deeply into the department's personnel, and implement tougher policies on North Korea and the Middle East than Barack Obama pursued.

Sixty-five years ago, in 1952, America elected another Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, who pledged to follow a harder-line in foreign policy than did his predecessor, Harry Truman, Eisenhower chose an eminent international lawyer, John Foster Dulles, to head the State Department, and one of his first acts was to announce a RIF (reduction in force) in department personnel of roughly twenty-five percent. A shudder went through the ranks; it was little comfort that other departments were also downsizing. A freeze on hiring and promotions went into effect in the department and lasted over a year.

Dulles was given a relatively free hand by Eisenhower to be the primary spokesman on foreign policy. His press conferences were closely watched by the press for changes in U.S. policy on the Soviet Union, China, NATO, and defense policy. His announcement of the new "massive retaliation" policy underlined the new hard-line defense policy the president's National Security Council had adopted.

Historians have noted that Dulles, although being the spokesman in foreign policy, was kept on a 'tight leash' by Eisenhower and rarely stepped out of line. One major time that he and the president disagreed was on Vietnam policy, in 1954. France asked the U.S. for air support to help it crush a Vietnamese insurgency that threatened its colonial rule. Dulles believed a Vietnamese victory would be viewed in Asia as a victory for Moscow and China; but Eisenhower decided against "bailing out" France's failing colonial rule in Indo-china.

A significant contrast between 1953 and 2017 is the personality and experience of the incumbent president. Dwight Eisenhower, "Ike" was a national hero who had led allied armies to victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. He understood international relations and after the war he acquired more experience through dealing with European leaders while serving as the first NATO commander. His personality was warm, even self-effacing at times. None of that characterizes Donald Trump today. Still, both presidents entered office determined to change both foreign and domestic policies and strengthen the economy.

William P. Rogers and Alexander Haig Jr., two other secretaries of state serving Republican presidents, illustrate Tillerson's task in serving Donald Trump.

When Richard Nixon became president in 1969, he quickly determined that foreign policy would be decided only by him. He selected a prominent lawyer and friend, William Rogers, to head the State Department, and he understood his job was to carry out policy, not make it. Nixon chose a Harvard professor, Henry Kissinger, as his national security adviser and together they re-structured foreign policy while America withdrew from the Vietnam War. Kissinger became Nixon's principal spokesman on foreign policy and national security issues and in 19074 replaced Rogers as secretary of state.

Alexander Haig, Ronald Reagan's choice as secretary of state, made the mistake of thinking he should have a lead role in shaping foreign policy. Reagan, unlike Nixon, knew little about foreign policy, but his White House assistants knew what he wanted and used the NSC to ensure that his hard-line policies toward the Soviet Union were implemented during the final years of the Cold War. Haig lasted only eighteen months as secretary of state.

The lesson for us is that Republican presidents want foreign policy decided in the White House, not at the state or defense departments. Rex Tillerson may not have fully understood his job description when he took office. But he soon learned, and in my view is doing a tolerably good job as America's secretary of state.

File last modified on Tuesday, 5-DEC-2017 10:42 AM EST

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