Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks at a 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report ceremony at the State Department in June. (AP)
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a regular contributor to PostEverything.

It’s grading season at my day job, which means I am wending my way through more than 50 policy-option memos written by hard-working students at the Fletcher School. I am not going to lie; after a while the memos begin to merge with one another. One starts seeking out the occasional distraction.

One of the upsides of 2017 is that the foreign policy of the Trump administration always provides a distraction! Sure enough, Politico’s Nahal Toosi has written yet another amazing story about the State Department under Rex Tillerson. Toosi’s story this week is about a real, live memo to the secretary immediately after his May town hall, in which he disdained the promotion of human rights in favor of a more vulgar realism.

Those comments were … let’s say they were not well received. This prompted Brian Hook, Tillerson’s director of policy planning, to send the secretary of state a background memo. According to Toosi:

The May 17 memo reads like a crash course for a businessman-turned-diplomat, and its conclusion offers a starkly realist vision: that the U.S. should use human rights as a club against its adversaries, like Iran, China and North Korea, while giving a pass to repressive allies like the Philippines, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. …

It is unclear what prompted Hook to author the memo, and whether he did so at Tillerson’s request amid a furor in foreign policy circles about Tillerson’s May 3 remarks, in which he said that “it’s really important that all of us understand the difference between policy and values” like “freedom, human dignity and the way people are treated.”

But the memo, a photo of which was shown to POLITICO, suggests that Tillerson, a former CEO of ExxonMobil, was still on a steep learning curve when it comes to foreign affairs. It also seems to foreshadow President Trump’s approach to the complex politics of human rights overseas.

Politico provided a link to the actual memo. In search of procrastinating activities, I read it. My first response:

To understand what I mean, and because I have grading on the brain, here’s how I would grade Hook if he had submitted this as a final paper for my Art and Science of Statecraft class:


This was a tough assignment. Trying to condense the history of how the United States incorporates human rights concerns into its foreign policy in less than a thousand words is quite a task! This is particularly true since it seems like the secretary of state is starting from a poor knowledge base. It is to your credit that this memo is both well-written and clearly argued.

I do have some issues with the content, however. Your potted history of how different administrations approached human rights contains some errors and elides some important facts.

For example, you write: “Reagan’s first instinct was always to back allies against adversaries, even in controversial cases, including through his second term. South Africa would be an excellent example. The approach used there was called ‘constructive engagement,’ and in the long run it worked.” No! No it didn’t! In actuality, it was only after the United States imposed sanctions — over Reagan’s veto — that South Africa’s apartheid government negotiated seriously with the ANC. You’re wrong on the facts here. As for the optics of a Trump official praising constructive engagement with South Africa, well, I’ll let you figure that out.

You also suggest that on human rights, the post-Cold War presidents “worked on relatively optimistic assumptions regarding the possibilities for positive social change overseas, as nudged forward by American power and diplomacy.” You further imply that these efforts bore little fruit. Presumably you are referencing the democratic recession, which is certainly real and should be acknowledged. Your memo, however, makes it seem like democracy and human rights did not progress at all during the post-Cold War era, and this is just not true. The world is much more democratic and free now than it was during the Cold War — in part because of American power and diplomacy nudging change forward. Failing to point this out is shading the truth a bit too much.

The biggest problem with the memo, however, is your suggestion of what to do now. You write, “One useful guideline for a realistic and successful foreign policy is that allies should be treated differently — and better — than adversaries. Otherwise, we end up with more adversaries, and fewer allies.”

It is certainly true that the United States, like any great power, needs to balance strategic interests with human rights concerns when dealing with allies. But you present this choice as a stark dichotomy when a more nuanced approach is called for. Not all countries fall neatly into the ally or adversary category, for one thing. For another, there are many ways that the United States can nudge allies on human rights, ranging from inducements to private diplomacy to the annual State Department human rights reports to the whispered threat of sanctions. These actions rarely trigger balancing behavior, particularly if they are executed with discretion.

More importantly, you fail to note that without nudging allies, any public criticism of adversaries gets devalued. The 2017 National Security Strategy stressed that the United States, “will continue to champion American values and offer encouragement to those struggling for human dignity in their societies.” God forbid that this memo would ever leak, because it badly undercuts that message. A memo like this one would fuel the cynicism of many American foreign policy critics. Future human rights pressure placed on Cuba or Venezuela or North Korea can be immediately discounted.

Really, this is a good first effort on a tricky topic. But a close review suggests that there are many aspects of this issue that you failed to consider.

I teach masters-level students. They are lucky that they did not hand in an assignment this incomplete.