Secretary of State Rex Tillerson addressed State Department employees on May 3, delivering a wide-ranging assessment of the state of the world. He offered a glimpse of how he plans to translate President Donald Trump’s  “America First” edict into U.S. foreign policy. Tillerson said he believes that an America First foreign policy will prioritize two core U.S. interests: “strengthening our national security and promoting economic prosperity.” In his speech, he juxtaposed these with our “values around freedom, human dignity, the way people are treated.”  He made clear “Those are not our policies, they’re values.”

Three months into his job, Tillerson has concluded, “If you condition our national security effort on someone adopting our values, we probably can’t achieve our national security goals or our national security interests.” He argues that by pursuing our human rights “values” we actually are creating “obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests.”

Tillerson’s analytic framework marks a radical departure from a bipartisan consensus on foreign policy that has served our country well over the last several decades. His approach departs from the mainstream in three fundamental ways, including the absolute disregard for a Presidential Directive that has guided U.S. foreign policy for almost 40 years.

First he wrongly embraces President Trump’s “America First” doctrine, a throwback to the radical isolationism of the early 1940s when 800,000 Americans joined the short-lived America First campaign, with its single focus on resisting U.S. entry into World War II. Charles Lindbergh, who became the most prominent spokesperson of this movement, railed against the forces pushing America into war  — the British government, the Roosevelt administration, and American Jews  — while speaking to a rally in Des Moines, Iowa, on Sept. 11, 1941.  While he expressed some sympathy for the plight of the Jews in Europe, Lindbergh warned “instead of agitating for war, the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way for they will be among the first to feel its consequences.”

President Trump’s contemporary embrace of a deeply American-centric view of the world has shocked our closest allies who depend on U.S. global leadership and has emboldened our adversaries, who welcome our retreat from the world stage.  It’s one thing for Trump to use this incendiary rhetoric but quite another for our chief diplomat to cite “America First” as the foundation for U.S. foreign policy.

A second major departure from the mainstream is Tillerson’s blunt rejection of the promotion of human rights as an objective of U.S. foreign policy, and his observation that pursuing human rights is actually an “obstacle” to promoting our real policy interests.  Over the last 40 years, Republican and Democratic administrations have followed the dictates of Presidential Directive 30 (PD 30), which was adopted during the administration of President Jimmy Carter in February 1978. The first line of this policy pronouncement states: “It shall be a major objective of U.S. foreign policy to promote the observance of human rights throughout the world.” PD 30 goes on to outline a range of diplomatic actions that need to be taken to advance this foreign policy objective, including the use of “the full range of diplomatic tools, including direct diplomatic contacts, public statements, symbolic acts, consultations with allies, cooperation with non-governmental organizations and work with international organizations.”

PD 30 provided President Ronald Reagan the framework for challenging the totalitarian regimes of the Soviet Union and her satellite allies in the 1980s. The pressure he exerted accelerated the sweeping changes that took place in Eastern and Central Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s. And subsequent administrations have followed suit, using a combination of public and private diplomatic tools to advance human rights as a “major objective” of U.S. policy.  To be sure PD 30 does not say that the promotion of human rights is the sole or even primary foreign policy objective. But what it does say is that human rights is a major policy objective that needs to be integrated with other strategic, economic and political objectives.

What Tillerson seems to be saying is that the State Department is taking human rights off the table. Apparently it views the pursuit of this policy objective as an inevitable obstacle to our security and economic interests. This is a radical departure from the bipartisan consensus that has forged around these issues, a consensus that emerged after World War II and was rooted in the failure to stop Adolph Hitler’s genocidal policies that led to the Holocaust.

It is unclear whether Tillerson is fully aware that he is bound by Presidential Directive-30. Of course the President could decide to change these directives for the executive branch. But by design overturning a standing presidential order generally demands considerable interagency debate and consideration of the implications. Such a radical change of course would also, by design, presumably invite greater public scrutiny and debate.

A third practical fallacy in Tillerson’s new policy framework is his broad assertion that America’s security and economy will be best served if we check  “our values” at the door.  This is mistaken on several levels. First, it’s mistaken and arrogant to assert that commitments to “freedom, dignity and the way people are treated” are solely American values. People who are on the receiving end of brutal treatment by their governments are clear about the fundamental importance of these rights in their own societies, even as their authoritarian leaders suggest otherwise. It is also wrong to assume that we will be more secure or more prosperous if we abandon the pursuit of human rights around the world. Experience has shown that democratic, rights-respecting governments are our most reliable allies, our best trading partners and our closest collaborators in the struggle against violent extremism.

Rather than walling off the pursuit of human rights as an obstacle to our interests, we need to double down on the active pursuit of human rights as core to our national interests and to American leadership in the world. If the Trump administration continues to reject this bipartisan tradition, it will be incumbent on Congress to use its constitutional checks and balances to ensure that human rights remains an essential component of U.S. policy around the world.


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