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May 10, 2017

President Trump’s Foreign Policy Threatens “Freedom, Justice, and Peace in the World”

In remarks to State Department employees on May 3, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson downgraded the place of universal values in U.S. foreign policy. He said that standing for values should not “be the case in every situation.” He set out a hierarchy of concerns: national security interests, economic prosperity interests, “and then as we can advocate and advance our values.”

This stance will embolden autocrats and dictators around the world. It shows that President Trump’s uncritical embrace of dictators and authoritarians is not an aberration, but part of a consistent foreign policy approach based on power and interests, with values a secondary, optional consideration.

This is a radical and dangerous shift in U.S. foreign policy—and in Tillerson’s own statements. At his confirmation hearing Tillerson embraced the mainstream approach that has guided U.S. foreign policy since the end of World War II. In January, Tillerson explained what is at stake: “We must continue to display a commitment to personal liberty, human dignity and principled action in our foreign policy… if we do not lead, we risk plunging the world deeper into confusion and danger.”

American global leadership must be contained within and guided by a sustained commitment to universal values. In the aftermath of the “barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind” of the Second World War, the United States led the creation of a global network of multilateral institutions and alliances rooted in international law and respect for human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, one of the foundational documents of the post-war global order—shepherded into existence by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1948—proclaimed, “Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

The genius of the Roosevelts’ vision is that the United States is stronger and more prosperous because it has chosen to act, for the most part, within the framework of universal values, which may at times appear constraining, but is in fact empowering and mutually beneficial.

The dangers associated with jettisoning or downgrading values within U.S. foreign policy can be seen in a specific example that Tillerson referred to in his remarks: the Middle East. “A counterterrorism effort is what it really boils down to,” he said. “And so how do we develop policies and bring regional players together to address these threats of ISIS and counterterrorism.”

Leaving aside the fact that it is highly disturbing to hear the Secretary of State reduce the entirety of foreign policy in the region to the fight against ISIS, the fight against terrorism cannot be separated from the imperative of promoting universal values of human rights. Forming a coalition of autocrats and dictators to “fight terrorism” will not “bring safety, opportunity and stability to the Middle East.” It is these authoritarian rulers and their predecessors whose corruption, poor governance, and human rights abuses have fueled extremism. Disregarding universal values in engaging the region’s leaders will likely fuel more terrorism and more resentment of the United States.

In the context of Tillerson’s remarks and the President’s recent actions and statements, it is alarming that in describing his goals for a meeting with Arab leaders in Riyadh later this month, Trump starts off by saying, “Our task is not to dictate to others how to live.” Standing firm for universal values because they are the foundation of peace and stability in the world is not dictating to others how to live.

President Trump may think he’s putting America first by disregarding human rights. In fact, he’s making the United States more vulnerable to violence.