Tillerson Defines 'America First'

Secretary Tillerson’s recent address to State Department employees was honest and direct. It establishes the basis for a policy that can both protect and advance U.S. national interests as well as assert American values.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s May 3 address to State Department employees is perhaps the most important and comprehensive articulation of the Trump administration’s foreign policy approach since candidate Donald Trump’s April 2016 foreign policy address (to a group invited by The National Interest). For the first time, a senior administration official has outlined a foreign policy concept that delivers on the vision that President Trump promised during the campaign. Secretary Tillerson appeared confident, articulate and thoughtful in explaining what “America first” means for U.S. foreign policy, in assessing key regional priorities, and in connecting both to the State Department and its mission. If he and the administration can succeed in executing policies on this basis, the Trump administration will successfully reorient U.S. foreign policy to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Tillerson’s remarks are a serious and encouraging start to the process and he and the aides behind it, perhaps including State’s policy planning chief Brian Hook (one of few senior political appointees in the building), deserve praise for their efforts.

Secretary Tillerson began by explaining that he and President Trump see America’s “partnerships and alliances” as having become “a little bit out of balance” during the post-Cold War era. This phrasing and Tillerson’s subsequent explanation in his remarks made clear that he was referring to America’s dealings with its “trading partners”—especially “emerging economies”—and not only what he described as the “notional obligations” of America’s NATO allies to increase their defense spending. He further stressed that restoring balance in these relationships would require “engagement with others” and thus clarified that it would not be a form of isolation or retreat as some fear.

A second major focus in his remarks, which has since received considerable attention, was Secretary Tillerson’s effort to answer the question “how do we represent our values?” He started with the unambiguous statement that “guiding all of our foreign policy actions are our fundamental values” which “never change” and are “on our shoulder wherever we go.” At the same time, however, Tillerson acknowledged the reality that “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.” He was then more specific, adding that “in some circumstances, we should and do condition our policy engagements on people adopting certain actions as to how they treat people. They should. We should demand that. But,” he continued, “that doesn’t mean that’s the case in every situation. And so we really have to understand, in each country of each region of the world that we’re dealing with, what are our national security interests, what are our economic prosperity interests, and then as we can advocate and advance our values.”

This is a practical and realistic approach to one of the most difficult problems in U.S. foreign policy, reconciling our interests and our values. It states explicitly that America’s fundamental values should guide U.S. policy while making clear that Washington cannot condition U.S. national security upon others’ adoption of American standards and practices in governance and human rights on a timeline sufficiently rapid to satisfy U.S. political cycles. As Tillerson explained, “I hear that from government leaders all over the world: You just can’t demand that of us, we can’t move that quickly, we can’t adapt that quickly.” In some cases, this retort may reflect genuine intent to change behavior in the face of economic, social or political obstacles. In others, of course, it is almost surely a deflection. Yet America cannot afford that either should prevent U.S. officials from working with foreign governments to protect vital national interests. And no small number of the governments from which we most need cooperation are precisely those that fall far short in reflecting American values.

Still, there are predictable critics of this approach, especially among those who have opposed President Trump from the outset and who reject any scrutiny of the costs and consequences of their preferred interventionist course. Thus neo-conservative professor Eliot Cohen, an organizer of anti-Trump open letters, rather disingenuously seeks to take Tillerson’s calibrated approach to its extreme, arguing that “since there are always some kind of security and economic interests in play, America cannot stand for much in the world beyond a kind of national selfishness, less intense perhaps but essentially no different than that of China or Russia.” This is preposterous and directly contradicts both Tillerson’s clear statement about the guiding role of American values in U.S. policy as well as his more nuanced and logically unimpeachable acknowledgement that Washington will be in a better position to insist upon American values “in some circumstances” than in others.

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