A State of Mind: Tillerson vs. Pompeo on the Issues, and What that Means for US Foreign Policy

Newly former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his replacement, former Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo, do not necessarily see eye to eye on every major foreign policy issue. Their divergent views raise serious questions as to how the shake-up in leadership at Foggy Bottom will alter the course of US foreign policy around the world.

In particular, Pompeo has a history of disparaging the Iran nuclear deal and remains supportive of US President Donald J. Trump’s harsh rhetoric on North Korea. As the White House prepares for Trump to sit down with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un sometime this spring and threatens to withdraw from the Iran deal, Pompeo could tip the policy scales and pivot away from the work done by Tillerson’s State Department.

On March 13, Trump fired Tillerson and appointed Pompeo as his replacement, citing differences of opinion on the Iran deal.

Though Tillerson and Pompeo hold divergent views on Iran, they remain closely aligned in other ways, such as their criticism of Russian interference in Western democracy. Tillerson’s firing came one day after remarks espousing the United Kingdom’s view, expressed by UK Prime Minister Theresa May, that Russia was behind the poisoning of a former Russian spy in the United Kingdom earlier in March.

While Pompeo’s appointment is new—and still pending Senate confirmation—his past remarks on key issues can shed some light on areas of contrast and continuity for US foreign policy and diplomacy.

Atlantic Council experts shared their views on the differences between Tillerson and Pompeo, and how the new foremost US diplomat could impact Washington’s foreign policy:

On North Korea:


“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.

“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.” (December 13, 2017)


The president, unlike previous administrations, has made a real commitment. That is the denuclearization of the peninsula is the mandate. That is what we are going to achieve. The president has made very clear that we’re going to do everything we can to do that in a way that doesn’t involve military action but has equally made clear that we’re not going to stand for allowing Kim Jong-un to hold Los Angeles, or Denver, or New York at risk.

“[Kim] is looking for a foothold to walk himself back. This would but entirely consistent with his historical activity. When he sees the threat, he tries to pacify it. And you can be sure that this administration is not going to fall prey to the same trap that previous administrations did.” (January 7, 2018)

Robert A. Manning, senior fellow in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security:

“Tillerson’s firing comes at a moment of volatility on both strategic and economic fronts. Tillerson has been a calm and steady voice, especially on North Korea and the Middle East, though often contradicted by presidential tweets.

“Pompeo has been more alarmist and a bit more hawkish on North Korea than Tillerson, so in regard to the path ahead, the Trump-Kim Jong-un summit and beyond, it may presage a more rocky road.”

Jamie Metzl, nonresident senior fellow in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security:

“It’s unclear what role Tillerson and the State Department more broadly would have played in the proposed upcoming North Korea negotiations so it’s difficult to evaluate what impact this change may have. It seems likely, however, that the ability of America’s diplomats to express a balancing voice of caution will be even more reduced than it already is.”

On Russia:


“From Ukraine to Syria—and now the UK—Russia continues to be an irresponsible force of instability in the world, acting with open disregard for the sovereignty of other states and the life of their citizens.” (March 12, 2018)

“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.” (December 13, 2017)


“I continue to be concerned not only about the Russians but about others’ efforts as well. We have many foes who want to undermine Western democracy. So there’s this Washington-based focus on Russian interference. I want to make sure we broaden the conversation.

“We have an important function as part of the American national security team to keep the American elections safe, and secure, and democratic. We are working diligently to do that. So we’re going to work against the Russians or any others who threaten that very outcome.” (January 7, 2018)

“I don’t have any comment on the investigations. They’ll run their course. We’ll do our duty and provide those who ask and have a right to see it, we’ll give them the information that they need so that they can conduct their investigations.” (April 13, 2017)

Anders Åslund, senior fellow in the Eurasia Center and Global Business and Economics Program:

“Trump and Tillerson appeared to disagree about just about everything—Trump, North Korea, Iran, the Middle East, and climate change. The one topic on which they seemed to share the same view was Russia, and it was positive. Since his Europe speech in December 2017, however, Tillerson has adopted a much more critical line on Russia, which has not been translated into policy. Pompeo is coming from another place. He was known as a hardliner on Russia before he became director of the CIA. But as a Trump loyalist he has softened his views on Russia and seems to be in line with Trump. Therefore, little change in US policy on Russia appears likely.”

John Herbst, director of the Eurasia Center:

“Tillerson’s ouster has been rumored for months.  It is not clear why President Trump removed him now. CIA Director Pompeo has established his bona fides as a national security player during his time at Langley, so this change is not in itself disruptive. Pompeo’s outlook on many issues is also similar to Tillerson’s. They have both, for instance, urged stronger support for Ukraine in fighting against Moscow’s war of aggression and, more broadly, in pushing back against the Kremlin’s provocative policies. This change in personnel does not herald policy changes. It does, however, speak to the president’s need to stir the pot and, of course, political Washington lives for this kind of drama.”

On the Iran Nuclear Deal:


“Iran’s development and testing of missiles should be subject to severe sanctions.

According to documents circulated by Tillerson, necessary changes to the deal include: “a commitment to renegotiate limits on missile testing by Iran; an assurance that inspectors have unfettered access to Iranian military bases; and an extension of the deal’s expiration dates to prevent Iran from resuming the production of nuclear fuel long after the current restrictions expire in 2030.

““In the absence of a clear commitment from [Europeans] to address these issues, the United States will not again waive sanctions in order to stay in the Iran nuclear deal.” (February 27, 2018)


“I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism.” (November 18, 2016)

Matthew Kroenig, nonresident senior fellow in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

“The Trump administration’s current approach to the Iran [nuclear] deal has already been heavily influenced by Trump and Pompeo’s skepticism and I don’t expect the strategy to change drastically based on this appointment. Essentially, the administration’s approach is stay in the deal if its flaws can be addressed and, if not, to walk away. 

“Fixing the deal would mean extending the expiration dates for the limits on Iran’s nuclear activities and placing caps on Iran’s ballistic missile program. Contrary to popular perception, European governments are already working with the Trump administration to begin plugging these holes in the deal. We will see how much progress they can make before May 12, which is the next time Trump will be required to renew sanctions waivers on Iran.”

Barbara Slavin, director of the South Asia Center’s Future of Iran Initiative:

“Optimism over the survival of the Iran deal has been in short supply since Donald Trump’s inauguration. In January, he waived nuclear-related sanctions again but made clear that this was the last time, absent major changes in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) regarding ballistic missiles, inspections, and the duration of limits on Iran’s nuclear program.

“Rex Tillerson appointed a team that has held two meetings on these issues with representatives of the key European negotiators of the JCPOA—Britain, France, and Germany, the so-called E-3—and is due to hold another meeting this week. While it was no by means certain that the United States could reach an understanding with the E-3 about desired changes to the JCPOA by the next sanctions waiver deadline of May 12, Tillerson’s replacement by CIA director Mike Pompeo makes this task much harder if not impossible. Pompeo has been on the record decrying the JCPOA as ‘disastrous.’ President Trump, in announcing Tillerson’s dismissal, said differences over the Iran deal and Tillerson’s support for it were a major factor.

For the many Iran and other foreign policy experts who have supported this agreement, the administration’s efforts to unilaterally renegotiate it without offering Iran anything in return always seemed a nonstarter. To abandon the JCPOA now, while Iran is in full compliance with it, at the same time Trump is contemplating a meeting with the leader of North Korea to try to convince him to give up nuclear weapons, defies logic. It should be the reverse. The likely result is two nuclear crises instead of one, with US hardliners giving their Iranian counterparts ample reason to restart Iran’s nuclear program. The international community will be so divided by US actions that any hope of restoring the sort of sanctions that brought Iran to the table will be dashed. China, North Korea’s lifeline and another key negotiator with Iran, as well as Russia, which is allied with Iran in Syria and which also helped negotiate the JCPOA, will be the main beneficiaries.”

On Afghanistan and Pakistan:


“We cannot continue with the status quo where terrorist organizations are allowed to find safe haven inside Pakistan.” (December 13, 2017)


We see that Pakistan is continuing to provide safe harbor havens inside of Pakistan for terrorists who present risks to the United States of America. We are doing our best to inform the Pakistanis that that is no longer going to be acceptable. So [with] this conditioned aid, we’ve given them a chance. If they fix this problem, we’re happy to continue to engage with them and be their partner. But if they don’t, we’re going to protect America.” (January 7, 2018)

James B. Cunningham, nonresident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a former US ambassador to Afghanistan:

“I don’t expect any change in the policy, which is pretty clear. But I very much hope the diplomacy in support will be stronger and more  effective in getting the results we need under Secretary Pompeo.”

Related Experts: Anders Åslund, Barbara Slavin, John E. Herbst, Matthew Kroenig, and Robert A. Manning

Image: US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson boarded his plane to depart at the end of a five-country swing through Africa from Abuja, Nigeria, on March 12. On March 13, US President Donald J. Trump tweeted that he had fired Tillerson. (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)