December 13, 2017
Diplomatic negotiations with "no preconditions" will be the US approach to solving the problem of North Korea, while working in concert with friends and allies, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said at the Atlantic Council on December 12.

“We’re ready to talk any time North Korea would like to talk,” said Tillerson, “and we’re ready to have the first meeting without preconditions.”

“Let’s just meet and let’s – we can talk about the weather if you want. We can talk about whether it’s going to be a square table or a round table if that’s what you’re excited about. But can we at least sit down and see each other face to face?” he added.

Tillerson’s remarks appeared to mark a shift in the US position that had required North Korea to commit to full disarmament before talks. “[I]t’s not realistic to say we’re only going to talk if you come to the table ready to give up your program. They have too much invested in it,” he said.

The secretary’s comments also stood in stark contrast to US President Donald J. Trump’s belief that diplomacy with North Korea is a “waste of time.”

According to Tillerson, in order to make meaningful strides toward attaining its foreign policy objectives on the world stage, particularly with regard to an issue like North Korea, the United States relies on its vast network of international allies. “Underlying all of our foreign policies, strategies, and tactics is a clear recognition that one of the advantages the United States takes into all of its foreign policy discussions is that we have many, many allies,” said Tillerson.

He added: “These large numbers of allies which are a great strength of US policies around the world are not matched by any of our adversaries.”

Tillerson delivered a keynote address at an Atlantic Council forum, hosted in partnership with the Korea Foundation: Reimagining the US-Republic of Korea Partnership in the Trans-Pacific Century.

Referring to allies who assist the United States in its policy toward North Korea, “none [is] more valuable than the Republic of Korea,” said Tillerson. South Korea is officially known as the Republic of Korea. 

Tillerson’s focus on US cooperation with international partners “put a stake in the heart of the notion that this administration does not believe in alliances,” according to Stephen Hadley, executive vice chair of the Atlantic Council and national security advisor to former US President George W. Bush. Following the keynote, Hadley moderated a discussion with Tillerson.

In his address, Tillerson “jogged through” the last eleven months of the Trump administration, highlighting not only the immediate threats such as the one posed by North Korea, but also issues which have been at the top of Trump's agenda since the start of his administration, such as the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

Tillerson asserted the importance of understanding the connections between the disparate areas of US foreign policy. He insisted that any one issue is connected to a myriad of others. The security risk posed by North Korea, for example, is connected to the US relationship with Russia as it presents a space in which the two adversaries can work to find common ground.

According to Tillerson, “the world has become so interconnected that no part of the world can actually isolate itself or compartmentalize its foreign policy issues because they all touch one another at some point.”

Immediately following a year in review town hall at the State Department, Tillerson outlined at the Atlantic Council his approach to US foreign policy objectives all around the world, noting both successes in the international arena and places where diplomatic efforts are ongoing.

1.       North Korea

“I will continue our diplomatic efforts [with North Korea] until the first bomb drops. I'm confident we're going to be successful. But I'm also confident [US] Secretary [of Defense James] Mattis will be successful if it ends up being his turn.”       

Tillerson insisted that the United States will focus on a diplomatic solution to the ongoing crisis with North Korea. “Our approach,” he said, “is to impose ever-greater penalties and ever-greater pressure on the regime in North Korea.” A coordinated set of both US and United Nation Security Council (UNSC) sanctions, implemented by international allies, have steadily raised the stakes for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as Pyongyang continues to conduct a series of missile and nuclear tests which began in August of 2017. Tillerson described how the United States has coordinated efforts to couple this economic pressure with diplomatic isolation, encouraging allies to bring their diplomats home from Pyongyang.

However, he said, the US focus on diplomacy is backed by the credible threat of force. The recourse to military force if North Korea uses one of its nuclear weapons is not a threat, said Tillerson, but “it has to be a credible alternative” to diplomacy.

2.       China

“When we understood that our policies were identical and our objectives were the same, that gave us a platform to engage in a positive way.”

Among the many international partners called upon to play a role in the containment of North Korea is China. Tillerson outlined how, through four new strategic dialogues between cabinet-level US officials and their Chinese counterparts, Washington and Beijing have been able to find new areas for cooperation between two global competitors. While he said that the United States and China will continue to work together on North Korea, he noted that “we have our differences” as well.

In particular, the issue of ongoing aggression from Beijing in the South China Sea is “unacceptable to us.” Further, China’s establishment of the Belt-Road Initiative (BRI), an economic initiative to enhance regional trade and productivity, flouts the existing system of economic rules and norms, according to Tillerson. The BRI “seems to want to define its own rules and norms,” he said. He called for free international access to trade throughout the region.

3.       Russia

“We have to deal with Russia’s hybrid warfare. We felt it in our elections and we heard from our European allies who felt it as well.”

While Trump “views it as extremely important that the United States and Russia have a working relationship,” election interference and the invasion of Ukraine have complicated the prospect of a productive partnership between Washington and Moscow. “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is something we cannot accept,” Tillerson said unequivocally. He described how US diplomatic efforts led by Kurt Volker, the US special representative for Ukraine, are “working to resolve the logjam in Eastern Ukraine.” He called for both Russian and Ukraine to fulfill their obligations under the Minsk agreements intended to end the violence in eastern Ukraine. 

Further, Tillerson said that Russia’s hybrid warfare, particularly in the realm of cyberspace “needs to end; it needs to stop.” Earlier on September 12, Tillerson acknowledged to a group of US diplomats Russia’s hand in determining the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election which swept Trump to the Oval Office. Though the United States plans to maintain active dialogues with the Kremlin, “we need some good news,” said Tillerson. He added: “We need something good to happen in this relationship, and today we can’t point to anything. We’re waiting”

4.       The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham

“As a result of military success, we in the State Department have really had to run fast to catch up.”

In the wake of the official declaration of ISIS’ defeat in Iraq, the US Department of State has taken the reins from the US Department of Defense (DOD) to work toward what comes next in both Iraq and Syria. According to Tillerson, “our efforts are now to stabilize these areas after liberation to prevent a reemergence of ISIS but also to prevent a reemergence of local conflict.” He described how, particularly in Syria, the State Department has worked with DOD to create de-escalation zones to achieve those ends.

5.       Syria

“De-escalation of violence and resolution in Syria…will be a product of the Geneva process.”

The resolution of Syria’s ongoing civil war, Tillerson said, will be decided in Geneva where talks continue between the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian opposition under the supervision of the United Nations. He noted that the United States has asked Russia to ensure that the regime participates in these talks, saying: “We will continue to work with Russia in areas where we can in Syria.”

6.       Iraq

“The policy has always been a unified Iraq.”

In Iraq, Tillerson described how the United States encouraged Iraq’s Arab neighbors to engage in the war against ISIS in Iraq, as well as the reconstruction of the country. He said that this approach “sends a message to all Iraqis that you are Arab and you should reengage with the Arab world.” Tillerson also emphasized that the US policy toward Baghdad promotes the unification of the country. “The independence referendum taken by the [Iraqi] Kurds” in October 2017 “was disruptive to that unity,” said Tillerson. However, he described how the United States is working with both Baghdad and Erbil to promote engagement and a resolution to the conflict based on a full implementation of the Iraqi constitution which should resolve many of the issues between the two sides.

7.       South Asia

“We cannot continue with the status quo where terrorist organizations are allowed to find safe haven inside Pakistan.”

Trump set forth a revitalized strategy for deepened US engagement with Afghanistan in August 2017, ensuring that US forces will remain engaged in the fight against the Taliban. However, said Tillerson, US time and effort in the region will be conditions-based, namely, Afghanistan must seek to “create conditions that will be inclusive to all ethnic groups.” While the United States will support Afghan troops on the battlefield, Kabul must work toward social and political reforms which might undermine its security.  

However, according to Tillerson, the US relationship with Pakistan remains more complex. As a foreign policy tool, Islamabad has chosen to house terrorist organizations it leverages against its regional adversaries, such as Afghanistan. Tillerson said that the United States is now “engaged with Pakistan in a conversation to ensure our expectations of them are clear.” Those expectations, he said, include the understanding that “Pakistan has to being the process of changing its relationship” with the terrorist organizations within its borders, among them the Haqqani network. “That relationship has to be altered,” Tillerson insisted, “because if they’re not careful Pakistan is going to lose control of their own country.”  

8.       European Union and NATO

“The Atlantic alliance is as strong as ever, despite what people may describe or want to write.”

Trump’s early rhetoric about US engagement with and support for its allies across the Atlantic, particularly with regard to his commitment to NATO’s Article 5, created waves of uncertainty. However, on the heels of his latest trip to Europe, where Tillerson with the European Union (EU)’s foreign ministers, he said: “Everywhere that I went…there’s still very strong ties between the United States and all of our partners and allies in Europe.” He said that Washington and Brussels see eye to eye on a variety of security, economic, and trade issues.

However, “we have a lot to work through,” said Tillerson. Trump has remained particularly focused on the idea that all NATO allies pay the 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense spending stipulated by the alliance. Currently, only five of twenty-eight countries in NATO meet that benchmark. According to Tillerson, “the president’s message to our European allies has been: ‘We are there for you, we will be there for you, but…you cannot ask American citizens to care more about the protection of your citizens than you do.’”

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Rachel Ansley is an editorial assistant at the Atlantic Council.