The Trump administration is just at the beginning stages of its campaign to pressure North Korea to give up developing nuclear weapons, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told State Department employees Wednesday morning in a wide-ranging discourse on applying “America first” principles to foreign policy.
Tillerson said the administration is 20 percent to 25 percent of its way into a strategy that includes preparing more sanctions against government officials and individuals, convincing other countries to apply existing U.N. sanctions more rigorously and “leaning hard” on China to use its influence to get North Korea to change direction.
“It’s a pressure campaign that has a knob on it,” he said to a packed auditorium of employees while thousands of others watched his remarks via live stream. “We’re at dial setting five or six now.”
Tillerson said Washington would negotiate with Pyongyang “when conditions are right” but added a caveat: “We are not going to negotiate our way to the negotiating table. That is what Pyongyang has done for the last 20 years, is cause us to have to negotiate to get them to sit down. We’ll sit down when they’re ready to sit down under the right terms.”
This was Tillerson’s second address to State Department employees, since the first he made in the lobby upon arriving at Foggy Bottom three months ago. His early tenure has left many employees feeling uneasy and demoralized, as they face potentially deep budget cuts, possible buyouts and a White House that has minimized State Department input in some of its policymaking.
Tillerson did not mention the pending budget cuts of almost 30 percent that have been proposed by the White House; Congress is certain to trim them. But he asked U.S. diplomats and civil servants to be “creative” in recommending changes to the organizational structure and work rules in an online employee survey that went up Wednesday to gather suggestions on how to fulfill the State Department mission.
Instead, Tillerson offered the most expansive expression of his worldview since his confirmation hearing. He said many policies and practices enacted decades ago must be modified to meet the realities of a post-Cold War era.
President Trump’s “America first” philosophy means restoring “balance” in relationships with allies, such as in trade and defense spending. “We just kind of lost track of how we were doing. And as a result, things got a little bit out of balance,” he said.
Amid criticism that the Trump administration has de-emphasized human rights and embraced authoritarian rulers, Tillerson said American values should not necessarily be a condition for policies that must serve U.S. security and economic interests first.
“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,” he said. “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 said the United States and Russia must improve their chilly relationship, characterized as “almost no trust between us.”
The erosion of cooperation and trust between the premier nuclear powers is dangerous and unsustainable, Tillerson said, and he pledged to try to improve it.
“That’s what we are hoping, that we can begin to build a way where we can learn how to work together,” said Tillerson, who will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov next week at an Arctic Council meeting in Alaska. “I don’t know whether we can or not.”
Friction points include competing aims in Syria and the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea, Tillerson said. He did not mention the conclusion by U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia attempted to undermine the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Russia denies the allegation.
Trump’s affinity for Russia and Putin was a recurring theme of the election, and the administration took office with hopes of striking a bargain with Russia that could defuse conflict in Syria.
Tillerson appeared before several hundred State Department employees who filled the Dean Acheson Auditorium, a standing-room-only crowd that lined up in the back and on the stairs along the walls. Others watched from an overflow room or from their desks, where his remarks were carried live on the State Department website.
Tillerson appeared at ease, shunning the podium to wander the stage like a talk-show host and gesturing constantly. In a departure from his normal practice of reading from prepared speeches, Tillerson spoke extemporaneously, gesturing constantly. At times, he turned folksy, saying that while he has read every memo sent to him, he appreciated those that were condensed to one page, “because I’m not a fast reader.”
It’s not clear whether Tillerson’s outreach will have much of an impact on those who are considering leaving, particularly those at the beginning or end of their careers. Some have said privately that they have seen no evidence he has pushed back against the White House in the budget battles. The State Department has not released a letter Tillerson sent to budget director Mick Mulvaney in early March seeking less dramatic cuts, at least in the first year, and making the case that many of the areas potentially on the chopping block play a valuable role.
A State Department official present at the speech, speaking on the condition of anonymity to assess the speech more candidly, said many employees will welcome Tillerson’s efforts to streamline bureaucratic procedures.
But the official said many remain worried about a proposal to stop employing spouses at embassies and consulates, which is considered a way to ease the hardships associated with uprooting a family every few years to live and work overseas.