Secretary Tillerson’s Interview With Steve Inskeep of NPR


Rex W. Tillerson
Secretary of State

Washington, DC

April 27, 2017


QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, I want to ask you about your new job. Some people will know that your old company had a mission statement that Exxon wanted to be the premier petroleum company in the world. What’s your mission statement for the State Department?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: I think our mission here is to deliver on the President’s policies to provide the national security needs of the American people and to advance America’s economic interest around the world. And I think the issue for us is how well we deliver on that mission.

QUESTION: Do you see a department that wasn’t delivering in some key areas?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: I think it was a – it’s – our administration, the Trump administration, has a different approach to how the administration wants to utilize the State Department in delivery of the mission. And I’m confident that the men and women of the State Department, whom I’ve been very impressed with since I arrived, are going to deliver on that mission. All we have to help them understand is what do we want them to do, and I’m confident they’re going to deliver on it.

QUESTION: Although, when you talk about a 31 percent budget cut, it suggests you think some of the functions of this department are not necessary, are not paying off.

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, I think if one looks at the State Department over the last, say, decade, if you look at a chart from 10 years ago and you look at a chart today, there’s a lot of added boxes on that chart. We are undertaking a reorganization. What we really want to do is examine the process by which the men and women, the career Foreign Service people, the civil servants, our embassies – how they deliver on that mission. I know there’s going to be opportunities to allow them to be more effective.

QUESTION: Now, when Rex Tillerson first arrived at the State Department, career diplomats were impressed. Later, many grew anxious or even mystified. Dozens of top positions in his department remain unfilled. In our talk, Secretary Tillerson acknowledged the hiring is moving more slowly than he might like, and he insisted he is listening, having lunch with some State Department veterans. He’s issuing a survey to all employees today asking them what they think of their jobs. As an outsider, a non-diplomat, Tillerson says he’s been asking why some longtime rules exist.

Is there a policy – not just an internal rule, but a policy – that’s made you say why are we approaching Pakistan that way, why do we treat sub-Saharan Africa in that way?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, I would say what I have encountered more often than not is the absence of a policy, the absence of a well-articulated policy. And so it’s not that people weren’t doing things that were worthwhile, but they were doing things without a clear direction as to what was the end state we were trying to achieve. Clearly, we want to go help people, we want to de-conflict, but do we understand why and what we’re trying to achieve in the longer run?

QUESTION: What’s the end state with Russia? The ideal end state, of course.

SECRETARY TILLERSON: I think we would like to have a relationship with Russia where they do not threaten and where they don’t pose a threat to the United States or to any of the Western part of the world, that Russia wants to be a positive member of the global world order, not a disruptive part and not a threat to others.

QUESTION: I’m thinking about the fact that we’re talking on a day when the United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley has made more statements criticizing Russia for its involvement in human rights abuses, effectively, in Syria. And it makes me wonder if the odds of an improved relationship with Russia have gone down since the administration has taken office.

SECRETARY TILLERSON: I don’t think the odds have changed one way or the other. I think the situation is, as I assessed it, and this is what, in fact, I said in my trip to Moscow in my meetings with Foreign Minister Lavrov and with President Putin is: My assessment is the U.S.-Russia relationship is at an all-time low, the lowest point it has been since the end of the Cold War. And I would tell you that their response was they didn’t disagree with that. I said we have a very low – almost no – level of trust between us and that my statement on that was this cannot be the relationship to exist between the two most powerful nuclear nations on the planet. We cannot have this kind of relationship. And it’s in a downward spiral. We’ve got to stabilize it, and we’ve got to begin to understand how we’re going to turn this around.

QUESTION: Do your personal relationships in Russia help at all, or is this really just a national calculation of interest and they see their interests differently than the United States will see its interests?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, I think Russia is going to act in Russia’s best interest. This is what all nations do. I think to the extent that I have longstanding relationships with the leadership in Russia, to the extent that’s helpful in that they already know me, they don’t have to try to figure out who this guy, Rex Tillerson is, because they’ve dealt with me for so many years, perhaps that’s helpful in that my ability to communicate is very straightforward, very candid. It’s not nuanced, because I have found in dealing with the Russian leadership in the past that is what they respect.

QUESTION: We are sitting in the George C. Marshall Room, and in fact, George C. Marshall is looking down at us from this portrait here.


QUESTION: A pretty intense gaze. Marshall, of course, was known for the Marshall Plan and for the phrase “enlightened self-interest,” helping other nations in order to help the United States.

Some people would presume that President Trump has a very, very different approach to foreign policy and to U.S. interests in the world. Is it different, and if so, how?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: I think perhaps it’s just articulated a bit differently. When the President says he wants to put America first, I think that is the correct position to take, because I think too often we have compromised America’s interest thinking, thinking that we were going to enhance it in the approach we take with others. I think what the President has said – I’m willing to look at a broad range of options, but I want to know at the end of it that the American people have won.

QUESTION: But with that said, does that mean that if there were a need for another Marshall Plan, to spend billions of American dollars somewhere, the President would be open to that?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: If it is going to solve serious national security threats to the U.S., if it’s going to put us on a stronger economic future and prosperity because of stability – we don’t prosper well in an unstable world – then the President is going to be open, I think, to any plan. And he is saying we will be there, we will provide the leadership, we will put our shoulder to it, but we’re not going to do this alone. Everyone has to come with us.

QUESTION: Secretary Tillerson, thanks very much for joining me.



QUESTION: We heard when you said the era of strategic patience is over, so we know what your policy is not. Is there a word or phrase you can give us to say what your approach to North Korea is?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Yes, our approach to North Korea is to have them change their posture towards any future talks. And I think when we say the era of strategic patience is over, in the past, I think we have always negotiated our way to the negotiating table. So when they act up, we would negotiate our way to get them to come to the table and then decide what we’re going to give them to have them behave. We don’t have the running room left to do that now given how far advanced their program has become. So this is an approach that is to put pressure on them through implementation of all the sanctions, as well as other diplomatic pressures and calling on others, to cause them to change their view of what will really allow them to achieve the security that they say they seek.

QUESTION: Do you intend direct talks with North Korea? Is that your goal?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Obviously, that would be the way we would like to solve this, but North Korea has to decide they’re ready to talk to us about the right agenda. And the right agenda is not simply stopping where they are for a few more months or a few more years and then resuming things. That’s been the agenda for the last 20 years.

QUESTION: Well, help me understand what success is from your point of view. What does the goal have to be?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, our goal is the same as that of China, which is a denuclearized Korean peninsula.

QUESTION: No nuclear weapons for North Korea?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: A denuclearized Korean peninsula. It’s very clear. That’s China’s stated policy. It has been our stated policy. It’s been the stated policy of our allies in the region. And I would quickly add we did our part. We took our nuclear weapons out of the Korean peninsula. It’s time for North Korea to take their weapons out as well.

QUESTION: Is that a realistic goal?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: It is our goal. It is our only goal.

QUESTION: And would you go so far as to say that is an absolute goal? I’m thinking of the way that President Obama during the nuclear negotiations with Iran said Iran will not have a nuclear weapon, period.


QUESTION: Are you prepared to say North Korea will not end this process with nuclear weapons, period?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: We must have a denuclearized Korean peninsula. That is our goal, pure and simple.

QUESTION: Nothing less?


QUESTION: Regardless of the methods?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: I’m not sure what you mean when you say “regardless of the methods.”

QUESTION: I guess I’m asking if that’s a redline for you, North Korea keeping any nuclear weapons at all.

SECRETARY TILLERSON: We don’t have any redlines. I think what you’re talking about, perhaps, is how do we get there. And we say we can’t begin the process of getting there until North Korea comes to the table with a willingness to talk about how we get there and how they achieve their objective. If you listen to the North Koreans and the regime of Pyongyang, their reason for having nuclear weapons is they believe it is their only pathway to secure the ongoing existence of their regime. What we hope to convince them is you do not need these weapons to secure the existence of your regime. We’ve been —

QUESTION: Meaning if you can assure the existence or the continued existence —

SECRETARY TILLERSON: We have been very clear as to what our objectives are and equally clear what our objectives are not. And we do not seek regime change. We do not seek a collapse of the regime. We do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula. We seek a denuclearized Korean peninsula, and again, that is entirely consistent with the objectives of others in the region as well.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, people will know that you’re trying to work through China on this and make sure that China is applying the appropriate pressure – one of many things you’re trying to deal with China on. I’d like to ask about the relationship between the President and the President of China, Xi Jinping. How important is that personal relationship between the two leaders?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, it’s extraordinarily important, first to just the broader relationship of where U.S.-China relations are going to find themselves over the next two to three to four decades. I think we are at a bit of an inflection point in the U.S.-China relationship. Now, North Korea is a threat that presents itself right up front to both of us, and in our conversations with the Chinese, and we have been very clear to them – I was on my initial trips to Beijing and then in the visit of President Xi to Mar-a-Lago, the President and I were able to be very clear to them – that things have to change in North Korea and we need their help doing that.

What China is beginning to reevaluate is whether North Korea is any kind of an asset to them or whether North Korea themselves and the regime have become a liability to China’s own security – because, as I’ve said to my Chinese counterparts, those missiles go in all directions.

QUESTION: When you say two or three or four decades, suddenly many things beyond North Korea are on the table. China wants to dominate its region, wants to dominate the South China Sea. It has a different view of the world than the United States. How do you persuade China to see its interests differently and in a less threatening manner to the United States long-term?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, I think we need to understand one another and understand that China is on a pathway of continuing to emerge with their own people in terms of providing a quality of life to their own population. They’ve made enormous progress over the last 10 to 15 years – 500 million Chinese have moved out of poverty into middle-class status.

Our understanding of them – and I think they need to have an understanding of us – is that we do not seek to constrain their need to continue their economic growth and to continue to help their people enjoy a better quality of life. As they are pursuing that, though, they have to do that in a way that supports stability around the rest of the world as well.

QUESTION: Does that mean they need to constrain their ambitions or that you need to constrain them?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Not their economic ambitions.

QUESTION: Their strategic ambitions.


QUESTION: Ambitions to power.

SECRETARY TILLERSON: — it depends on how they view those strategic ambitions and whether those present a threat to stability for the rest of the world or not. And I think a specific example, obviously, is their activity towards island-building in the South China Sea and in particular their militarization of those islands. We have had very, very frank conversations and exchanges with the Chinese around these activities and our view that this destabilizes the area of the South China Sea rather than creates stability.