Trump’s cabinet picks reveal dangerous foreign policy orientation
ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson is Trump's nominee for secretary of state. He is pictured here at an annual shareholders meeting in Dallas in May 2014. | LM Otero / AP

On Tuesday December 13, President-elect Donald Trump finally announced his nomination for secretary of state: ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson. Although not all cabinet and White House positions have yet been filled, let alone confirmed by the Senate, we can nevertheless see now what kind of government will greet the people of the United States on January 20.

It will be a government of big oil, finance capital, and the military brass – spiced up with a dash of fascism. Although Trump campaigned as a man of the people who would restore democracy to the United States and put a check on the “elites,” his cabinet choices so far could not be more elite. Nor could one imagine a much greater threat to the U.S. working class.

But what does the new cabinet mean for the rest of humanity? The 324 million inhabitants of the United States represent a mere 4.6 percent of the world’s population. Yet the military power, wealth, and carbon footprint of this country are so enormous that what happens in our elections has profound implications for all the 200 or so nations of the world and their inhabitants. In every one of these nations, the assembling of the Trump regime is being watched with anxiety.

A corporate cabinet

Tillerson, the proposed secretary of state, has had friendly relations with Russia and other major players in the energy industry – not out of any ideological reasons but rather because his company, ExxonMobil, has investments there. Tillerson turns out, also, to strongly favor the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which is logical for an oil tycoon, but clashes sharply with Trump’s campaign promises to ditch the trade pact and others like it.

Betsy DeVos, prominent school voucher and religious school advocate, is Trump's pick to head up the Department of Education. | Cory Morse / The Grand Rapids Press via AP
Betsy DeVos, prominent school voucher and religious school advocate, is Trump’s pick to head up the Department of Education. | Cory Morse / The Grand Rapids Press via AP

In his support for the TPP, Tillerson is joined by Trump’s nominee for secretary of commerce, Wilbur Ross. Ross is also a businessman and investor on a world scale. His International Textile Group has factories in China, Vietnam, and across Central America. Goldman-Sachs alumnus Steven Mnuchin, the nominee to head up the Treasury, is extremely unlikely to emerge as an enemy of neoliberal free trade pacts either. Goldman Sachs is a top player in international finance capital markets with holdings in many countries.

Major privatization advocates are prominent in other cabinet nominations. School voucher and Christian school enthusiast Betsy DeVos is Trump’s pick for secretary of education. He has selected his one-time adversary for the GOP nomination, Ben Carson, to oversee the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the agency whose anti-discrimination rules the President-elect and his father were sued for violating in the 1970s.

For Health and Human Services, Trump has put forward Tom Price, a six-term Republican Congressman and leader of the effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Meanwhile for the Department of Labor, Trump has sent a message to the Fight for $15 with his nomination of fast food executive and anti-union advocate Andrew Puzder.

It is shaping up to be a government that supports and promotes austerity and privatization at home and neoliberal trade pacts internationally. It certainly does not appear to be one that opposes such trade deals to prevent the outsourcing of “American jobs” as promised by Trump’s campaign rhetoric. His election is so far proving to be a masterful coup of bait-and-switch fully worthy of the creator of the “Trump University.”

The new cabinet appointments suggest, however, that Trump will be good on his word in other respects.  The environment is going to take a hit. Tillerson, the oilman secretary of state, will sit in the cabinet alongside former Texas Governor Rick Perry, whom Trump has nominated as secretary of energy. The Environmental Protection Agency will be headed by  Scott Pruitt, a climate change and global warming denier. The likelihood that the Trump administration will abandon the U.S. commitment, under Obama, to the Paris climate agreement and its follow-up is high.

The security establishment

The threat against immigrants, meanwhile, is heightened by Trump’s appointments of Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) as Attorney General, and of retired Marine General John Kelly as secretary of Homeland Security. Sessions will be one of the most hard-core reactionaries in the cabinet, while Kelly is known for peddling fear that Muslim terrorists could slip across the southern border of the United States in the stream of undocumented Latin American immigrants.

Trump has also nominated two more generals. James “Mad Dog” Mattis, another Marine, will be secretary of defense. For Mattis to be confirmed, however, it will be necessary for Congress to approve a special waiver of the law that a military officer cannot serve as secretary of defense until seven years have passed since leaving military service. Mattis, who served in command positions in the Iraq War, sees Iran as the major enemy threat in the Middle East. During the presidential campaign, Trump threatened to jettison the five-power nuclear treaty with Iran, so the nomination of Mattis may indicate that this is a campaign promise he intends to keep.

The other general he has named is Army General Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor. Flynn is another denouncer of Muslims and avid conspiracy theorist. He appears to be one of the most far right of Trump’s appointments thus far.

Nikki Haley, the Governor of South Carolina, will be U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. She has no foreign policy background whatsoever, so how she will handle that key responsibility remains to be seen.

John Bolton, who was U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in the George W. Bush administration, is said to be in line for a high position in the State Department also, possibly deputy secretary. Bolton is one of the most ideologically right-wing people who have been discussed for important posts. He was, for a while, under consideration for the position of secretary of state. Bolton is an anti-communist ideologue who is particularly ferocious in his denunciations of Cuba. If Trump keeps his campaign promise to block further normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations, Bolton may come to the fore in some capacity. He was also a major advocate of the Iraq War.

Stephen Bannon, Breitbart News veteran and Trump’s nominee for White House chief strategist, has big thoughts about foreign policy too. He is seen by some, including former Breitbart writer Ben Shapiro, as wanting to create an “international” of far right and neo-fascist leaders from a number of countries, including Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Front.  Together with Flynn and Bolton, Bannon is likely to be the one of the most extreme foreign policy hawks in the Trump administration.

In a bizarre foreign policy move, Trump has suggested to British Prime Minister Theresa May that she appoint Nigel Farage, the former head of the far-right United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), known for his anti-immigrant positions, as British ambassador to the United States. May declined.

Will they all be confirmed?

Will the Senate confirm these nominations? It seems likely that most will be confirmed, but an issue has been raised about Tillerson’s friendly relationship with the Russian government, and specifically with President Vladimir Putin. On the Republican side of the Senate aisle, three senators in particular have questioned the Tillerson nomination: John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

The motives of all three are somewhat suspect. All have been extreme hawks on the topic of Ukraine, where an ultra-right government in Kiev has been battling to subdue dissident elements in the mostly Russian speaking provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, on the Russian border. McCain, Graham, and McConnell have denounced the Obama administration for, according to them, not providing arms to the repressive and extremist Kiev government. McCain, in particular, has been so vehement on this subject that he gives the impression of having forgotten that Russia has nuclear weapons, and that therefore raising tensions in that part of the world might be ill-advised.

Now the question of Tillerson’s friendly attitude toward Russia has become entangled with the controversy about alleged Russian cyber-interference with the U.S. presidential elections. Whether this will lead to Tillerson’s rejection by the Senate remains to be seen.

If Tillerson is rejected by the Senate, whom would Trump name as secretary of state?  The other candidates who have been mentioned are equally frightening: the right-wing ideologue John Bolton, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, to name three of the most frequently mentioned.

2008 GOP nominee Mitt Romney has been promoted by some as a “responsible” candidate. Romney’s involvement, through his company Bain Capital, with some of the most most extreme reactionary elements in the ruling class of the Central American countries undermines such an assessment.

The progressive response

Given the likelihood that Trump’s nominees, with the possible exception of Tillerson, will probably be confirmed by the Senate, what should be the response of progressives?

Certainly, trying to block some of these confirmations is a valid approach, but that is an uphill struggle. In the long run, progressives will have to battle the coming Trump foreign policy initiatives issue-by-issue.

It will be necessary to continue fighting against neoliberal “free trade” agreements like the TPP, the TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), and the like. Awareness also has to be raised about the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA), a proposed deal which threatens to reverse financial regulations and aid in the privatization of public services around the world.

The advances made in normalizing U.S. relations with Cuba should be defended, and campaigns for a similar rapprochement between the U.S. and Venezuela and other left-led governments should be organized.

Any new military adventures, interventions, or regime change efforts will have to be blocked in favor of peaceful resolution of disputes. Likewise, expansion of NATO further into eastern Europe will have to be resisted. Fighting against provocations toward China that raise tensions in the Asia-Pacific region must also be on the agenda.

And international agreements on climate change and global warming will likely come under intense pressure. They will have to be defended.

These and similar things will be the outline of the coming struggle, no matter who occupies what cabinet post.  And it will indeed be a struggle.


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.