Mike Pompeo Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Can Mike Pompeo Save US Foreign Policy?

After more than a year of struggling to engage constructively with US President Donald Trump's administration, the world should start thinking realistically, instead of hopefully. Mike Pompeo's takeover as Secretary of State could provide an ideal opportunity to do just that.

MADRID – Rex Tillerson’s tenure as US Secretary of State was one of the shortest, most turbulent, and most ineffectual in the history of that illustrious post. Not only did he gut the State Department; he was also out of the loop in President Donald Trump’s administration. Will his replacement – outgoing CIA Director Mike Pompeo, an “America First” true believer who has Trump’s ear – fare any better?

Tillerson’s departure comes at a time when Trump seems to be seeking to separate himself from a national security team that has often acted as check on the president’s worst instincts, at times even ignoring his more impulsive declarations. That effort is exemplified by the recent appointment of firebrand John Bolton to replace the embattled H.R. McMaster as National Security Adviser.

This new phase carries significant risks; the selection of Bolton, in particular, has raised fears that the US may be headed for a destabilizing conflict. But it may also amount to an opportunity for a kind of reset: with a secretary of state who is unlikely to say what the international community wants to hear, a more open and candid dialogue might be possible, opening the way for realistic, mutually beneficial action.

This does not mean that the international community – or, more specifically, America’s allies in Europe – should expect the Trump administration suddenly to act more like previous US administrations, say, by reversing its efforts to undermine free trade. On the contrary, paeans to the rules-based international order or the transatlantic community will continue to get us nowhere.

But there are three areas where a Trump-approved transactional approach can produce agreement that serves US interests, while stabilizing the broader international community. The first relates to Russia – not questions about its role in the 2016 US presidential election, but rather efforts to rein in Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy.

Since at least 2008, Putin has relished playing the role of international spoiler. But, in recent months, an emboldened Russia has taken its destabilization tactics to a new level, exemplified by Russian mercenaries’ direct attacks against American forces in Syria, Putin’s rollout of nuclear-powered cruise missiles, and the attempted murder of a former Russian spy in the United Kingdom. The Trump administration has also accused Russia of mounting cyber attacks that would have enabled it to sabotage American and European nuclear power plants and water and electric systems at will.

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Russia may be too weak to offer real global leadership, but it remains influential enough to do serious damage. Impelling it to play a more positive and responsible international role is thus in everyone’s interest. Now is the time for Trump to make good on his campaign promise to build a more constructive relationship with Russia.

It is already clear that sanctions alone do not work. And kowtowing to Putin or tiptoeing around his transgressions seems only to embolden him. What is needed is a more precise mix of carrots and sticks. Tillerson failed to strike the right balance, but perhaps Pompeo, with his direct line to the White House, can do better.

The second area where progress can be made is nuclear non-proliferation. Here, the main focus will be North Korea. Trump and Kim Jong-un have already publicly declared their willingness to engage in face-to-face talks, though it is not clear how the situation will develop. In any case, action on North Korea should be just one part of a broader effort to advance non-proliferation, which could help Trump to redefine a presidency that has so far been marked largely by chaos and conflict.

To this end, Trump could carefully apply his “North Korea model” – a combination of saber-rattling and bluster to force a diplomatic initiative – to Iran. On this front, Bolton’s appointment might even help, as it lends added credibility to the threat of the use force, which is required to make such an approach work.

Pompeo shares Trump’s disdain for the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which he argues does not go nearly far enough to rein in the country’s behavior. But that deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was never intended to stand alone; rather, it was supposed to be the first step toward addressing Iran’s aggressive behavior in other areas.

Far from dismantling the JCPOA, as Trump has often threatened to do, he and Pompeo should build on it, tying it to additional initiatives that cover Iran’s behavior more generally. Such an effort would attract support from much of the rest of the international community, including America’s European allies, as well as Israel, which views Iran as an existential threat. All major global players would breathe easier knowing that the JCPOA was safe.

Even Russia, which now faces the prospect of an uncomfortable coexistence with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in Syria, would have plenty of reason to support a comprehensive containment strategy, tied to the JCPOA. For Trump, such a strategy would amount to a significant foreign-policy success, seemingly vindicating his “madman” approach to diplomacy.

Pompeo should also focus his attention on reversing the damage Tillerson did to the State Department. That institution, with its global reach and diplomatic competence, has long acted as a critical lever of American power in the world. Yet, today, it is a shadow of its former self.

During Tillerson’s tenure, the State Department lost four of its five “four-star” or career ambassadors, while failing to fill many key positions, including the assistant secretaries of state for African, Near Eastern, and South and Central Asian affairs. Add to that a weakened mandate and flagging morale, and the department has lately seemed to be fading into irrelevance.

Pompeo can stop the rot, revitalizing the State Department’s role in US foreign policy. This would be good for the Trump administration, which needs support in dealing with international challenges. And it would be good for the rest of the world, which would benefit from the stability and direction the State Department provides (even when we do not agree with US policy).

After more than a year of struggling to engage constructively with the Trump administration, the world should start thinking realistically, instead of hopefully. Pompeo is close enough to Trump that he may have the power to make real changes. We must do everything in our power to ensure that those changes are for the better.

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