More convincingly, voters elected Barack Obama and then Donald Trump as President of the United States rather than John McCain and Hillary Clinton. Obama’s 2008 victory owed a great deal to public rejection of George W. Bush’s transformation of what were security-based wars in Afghanistan and Iraq into costly nation-building projects to bring democracy to these two deeply fractured nations. Eight years later, this sentiment appeared to endure even among conservative and military-friendly South Carolina Republicans who voted for Trump during the state’s 2016 presidential primary following what many pundits considered politically fatal criticism of Bush over Iraq. Foreign policy, like other policies in a democratic society, ultimately depends upon the consent of the governed.
Faced with these facts, those determined to equate America’s interests with its values usually argue that a president able to communicate more effectively with the public could solve this problem. This ignores the fact that even one of America’s best political communicators—Bill Clinton—failed at this task in pursuing interventions in Haiti, Somalia and elsewhere. Recall that candidate George W. Bush’s statement that “what we need to do is convince people who live in the lands they live in to build the nations” rather than Americans. It similarly dispenses Clinton’s only recent superior in this skill, the “great communicator” Ronald Reagan, who took a more candid and humble approach to American values than many recall when he acknowledged that “our nation, too, has a legacy of evil with which it must deal” several paragraphs before famously describing the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” And notwithstanding this 1983 characterization, Reagan was ready to negotiate with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev only two years later, long before most Americans and especially most conservatives were prepared to do so.
Secretary Tillerson’s remarks were refreshingly honest and direct. They establish the basis for a policy that can both protect and advance U.S. national interests as well as assert American values in practice rather than through inconsistently executed rhetoric. That he wisely outlined his views to a State Department audience rather than a Washington think tank or in another venue highlights both Tillerson’s good judgment in winning over the building before “the blob” and his adroitness in establishing his foreign policy role without attempting to compete with or overshadow the president. Here—and in his repeated result-oriented references to ensuring that the State Department will “deliver on mission”—Secretary Tillerson’s background as a corporate leader may be most visible. Rather than immediately seeking public attention, for which he took some heat from the media, he has used his initial months in office to familiarize himself with the State Department and to learn his job. He seems readily to grasp that to succeed in performing for his shareholders, the American people, he cannot do without the support of his superior or his subordinates. And he appears to recognize that good intentions and pious pronouncements are no substitute for satisfactory outcomes—a stark contrast to his two political predecessors.
Paul J. Saunders, associate publisher of the National Interest, is executive director of the Center for the National Interest.