Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s lack of understanding of the role that human rights plays in U.S. foreign policy was a major concern for Democrats and a few Republicans at his confirmation hearing. He now is demonstrating precisely why their fears were not misplaced.
Translating “America First” into diplomatic policy, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday declared the United States would no longer condition its foreign relationships on countries adopting U.S. values like human rights. He spoke to a State Department eager for answers about changing priorities and a sweeping, impending overhaul. …
The former Exxon Mobil CEO distinguished between U.S. “values” and “policies” that he said would drive his strategy. Policies can and must change, he said, while the challenge for diplomats is identifying how to best represent U.S. values. For America’s national security, he added, policies won’t necessarily be contingent on values.
This will only add to the angst of activists and human rights organizations, and “lawmakers from both parties have raised concerns about the Trump administration deemphasizing human rights, pointing to Trump’s warm interactions with leaders of nations like the Philippines and Egypt, which have experience democratic backsliding in recent years.” Indeed, Tillerson seemed to be arguing for the United States to throw in the towel on human rights.
Amnesty International blasted his comments in a written statement: “The Trump Administration is literally trying to erase human rights before our very eyes. … His own actions and those of his staff show a dangerous disregard for freedom, justice and equality throughout the world. It is more critical than ever that we stand up and fight back against any effort to erode human rights at home or abroad.”
After the president’s appalling comments of late praising dictators around the world (even saying it would be an “honor” to meet with Kim Jong Un and inviting Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who encourages extrajudicial killings, to the White House), this is deeply troubling. “How curious that seemingly putting America First does not involve putting America’s values first,” outspoken Trump critic Eliot Cohen tells me. “Of course, in the real world there are often tensions between our values and our interests — navigating those tensions is the task of statecraft. But to pretend that there is nothing between imposing our form of government on other states and disregarding our values in the conduct of foreign policy is absurd.” He adds, “That is not the foreign policy that helped us win the Cold War, and it’s not the foreign policy that will help us in a more uncertain age.”
Indeed, one of the many tools we have to combat aggressive states is our ability to call them out on their human rights records. And, as experts recently testified on Egypt aid, remaining mum on human rights with allies does them no favors, promoting instability and anti-American sentiment. “Sidelining human rights concerns does not serve U.S. interests,” explains David Kramer of the McCain Institute. “The issue is not whether other countries adopt our values but whether they live up to universal values, which include freedoms of assembly and association, religion and expression. The problems we have around the world are with non-state actors like ISIS and authoritarian regimes.” He cautions this is not an either/or proposition. “Human rights need not drown out other interests, but they also shouldn’t be marginalized. It is consistent with our values as well as in our interests to see human rights respected around the world.”
Tillerson’s failure to appreciate the tradition of U.S. foreign policy bodes ill for his success. We do not pursue human rights solely out of the goodness of our hearts. “The United States has a decades-long history of supporting dissidents and democracy and human rights activists, consistent with our own founding principles and with universal values adopted under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” Kramer says. “U.S. leadership in supporting democracy movements and showing solidarity with dissidents and human rights defenders is indispensable. A world with more democracy and freedom will be a safer, more prosperous world — and that is good for America.”
Unfortunately, this is what comes from an administration composed of generals, an oil executive and a president without the slightest understanding of the United States’ place in the world or our guiding principles. Republicans would have done well to join Democrats in blocking Tillerson. America deserves better.