The Cold War may have ended more than a quarter century ago, but according to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, it still lives on in at least one way: International relations are still largely managed through institutions that were designed for that era. Tillerson is intent on reforming the State Department so that it is prepared to face today’s realities, rather than those of a bipolar world order that no longer exists.
Addressing his employees yesterday at State’s Foggy Bottom headquarters, Tillerson explained President Trump’s “America First” concept to a roomful of people who—in all likelihood—voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton. During the campaign, many of those Clinton voters probably would have personally found the “America First” slogan to be gauche. But Tillerson managed to explain “America First” in a way that could resonate with his audience but yet remain true to President Trump’s principles.
Tillerson said that “America First,” in the context of the State Department’s mission, primarily meant “America first for national security and economic prosperity.” But, he stressed, “that doesn’t mean it comes at the expense of others. Our partnerships and our alliances are critical to our success in both of those areas.”
In his conversational style, Tillerson talked about the changes that have arisen in the post-Cold War era. “As we participated in those changes, we were promoting relations, we were promoting economic activity, we were promoting trade with a lot of these emerging economies, and we just kind of lost track of how we were doing,” he said. “And as a result, things got a little bit out of balance.”
Tillerson continued: “So whether it’s our asking of NATO members to really meet their obligations—even though those were notional obligations, we understand, and aspirational obligations—we think it’s important that those become concrete. And when we deal with our trading partners—that things have gotten a little out-of-bounds here, they’ve gotten a little off balance—we’ve got to bring that back into balance because it’s not serving the interests of the American people well.”
Tillerson drew a distinction between American values, such as “freedom, human dignity, the way people are treated,” and American policies: “I think the real challenge many of us have as we think about constructing our policies and carrying out our policies is: How do we represent our values? And in some circumstances, if you condition our national security efforts on someone adopting our values, we probably can’t achieve our national security goals or our national security interests. If we condition too heavily that others must adopt this value that we’ve come to over a long history of our own, it really creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests. It doesn’t mean that we leave those values on the sidelines. It doesn’t mean that we don’t advocate for and aspire to freedom, human dignity, and the treatment of people the world over. We do. And we will always have that on our shoulder everywhere we go.”
Tillerson stressed that “in some circumstances, we should and do condition our policy engagements on people adopting certain actions as to how they treat people.” But, he said, “that doesn’t mean that’s the case in every situation.”
Not surprisingly, the mainstream media put its own spin on Tillerson’s message. ABC News ran the following headline on its website: “Tillerson: Pushing human rights abroad ‘creates obstacles’ to U.S. interests.” The Guardian, a leftist UK newspaper, twisted the message into even more of a caricature: “Rex Tillerson: ‘America first’ means divorcing our policy from our values.”
Tillerson, of course, was merely stating the obvious. America remains the most powerful nation in the world, but our power is not limitless. We therefore have to recognize the tradeoffs that sometimes exist between promoting human rights and promoting American security and prosperity. So while we should promote human rights and other universal values when we can as much as we can, we must understand that continuously doing so at the expense of national and economic security erodes American power—and hence erodes our ability to promote freedom and human dignity in the long run.
The moral case for Tillerson’s—and Trump’s—approach is rooted in American exceptionalism. America is a force for good in the world, and therefore its power and prestige must be preserved and enhanced. America will never have the power to guaranty freedom and human rights for everyone in the world. But the lack of a strong America would greatly reduce freedom and human rights around the globe—particularly since other world powers, such as China and Russia, are hostile to such values.
American exceptionalism is not a moral justification for any conceivable action that America might take in its own self-interest. But it does give rise to a moral obligation for American leaders to exercise judgment and wisdom in navigating the complex tradeoffs that often arise between promoting our values and promoting our interests.
While the audience yesterday was no doubt interested in Tillerson’s discussion of foreign policy, they were even more interested in listening for hints about the future of their department. The Trump Administration is proposing to cut State’s budget by almost 30 percent, and Tillerson made it clear that significant change was on the way. It was too early, however, for Tillerson to offer specifics: his team had just begun a “listening tour” to determine how best to reform the department to meet the challenges of the future.
Tillerson did his best to reassure his employees that they were valued. He was very praising of the career staff, and his praise appeared to be sincere.
I have my own impression of the State Department, having worked closely with different bureaus during the Bush Administration. On the one hand, I often found State as an institution to be an overgrown, inflexible, frustrating bureaucracy. On the other hand, I found the career civil servants that I worked with, virtually without exception, to be dedicated, intelligent, professional and patriotic. Regardless of who they voted for, I believe these folks will respond well to a renewed sense of purpose and strong, positive leadership.
We will soon find out.
David B. Cohen formerly served as U.S. Representative to the Pacific Community and as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Insular Affairs. He co-chaired the Federal Interagency Group on the Guam Military Buildup, and served on the Trump-Pence Asian-Pacific American Advisory Committee.