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January 13, 2017

Tillerson and a Values-based U.S. Foreign Policy

Senate confirmation hearings are poor vehicles for finding out the actual views of nominees. Would-be cabinet secretaries know that it's wise to say as little as possible as vaguely as possible so as to give senators little reason to object to their appointment. Nominees say what they think senators will want to hear, and this is usually the conventional wisdom of the moment.

Rex Tillerson’s hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday fitted this pattern. But in articulating oft-repeated, generally bipartisan foreign policy platitudes, Tillerson inadvertently shed light on the challenges likely to confront the new administration.

As has become common for leading U.S. officials from both parties, Tillerson asserted that human rights would be a central concern of his tenure as Secretary: “Our values are our interests,” he declared, quickly adding a qualifier that it would be “unreasonable” to expect that policy would be driven by “human rights alone.” (Not that anyone has ever suggested that it should be, but leave that aside for now.)

He was echoing Barack Obama, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice and many other leaders from both parties. They have all also said, like Tillerson, that the priority accorded to values is the sort of moral leadership that American leaders should offer to the world, but that when serious issues like national security are at stake, then these values must be pushed down the priority list.

This slippery way of speaking perhaps explains some of the problems that the United States has faced in seeking to be a global leader on human rights.

Convoluted, internally contradictory articulations of policy have consequences, as became clear in the course of the hearings. Tillerson identified defeating ISIS and radical Islam as a top priority and explained that in this effort he would seek cooperation with Russia and with America’s “traditional allies” in the Middle East. Yet Russia and countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates do not share U.S. values. Tillerson said as much when speaking about Saudi Arabia and implied the same when speaking about Russia. The question therefore arises of how a closer alliance with countries notorious for their human rights violations and their disdain for basic freedoms will serve American interests. Russia, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia are the sources of some of most virulent anti-American propaganda produced anywhere in the world, much of that emanating from official, or officially approved, media outlets.

In practical terms, a closer alliance with these kinds of repressive authoritarian governments will likely undermine Tillerson’s stated policy priority. Russia’s bloody repression of its own Muslim population in Chechnya and other parts of the North Caucasus has fueled an ongoing low-level conflict in parts of southern Russia, inspired violent extremists everywhere, and produced fighters for terrorist groups in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere.

Egypt’s dysfunctional counterterrorism efforts and brutal repression of the Muslim Brotherhood have left a legacy of serious violations of human rights not seen in Egypt since the Nasser era, and have contributed to chronic instability and political violence.

Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship of an extreme interpretation of Sunni Islam has provided the ideological underpinning for extreme sectarianism, often directed at other Muslims, and spread hatred and intolerance of other religions, including Judaism and Christianity. These ideas have contributed to violent extremism, sometimes directly supported by private donors in Saudi Arabia other GCC states. Tillerson, echoing President Obama and other senior U.S. officials, spoke of the “centuries long cultural traditions” as an obstacle to advancing human rights in Saudi Arabia, but there is nothing centuries-old about the instrumentalization of Sunni sectarianism as a weapon by the political elite of the oil rich kingdom.

The policies of states like these have contributed to the proliferation of terrorism by violent extremist groups.

To his credit, towards the end of his hearing Tillerson returned to the “our values are our interests” mantra and, perhaps, unpracticed in the ways of Washington—and facing strong bipartisan questioning on his views on human rights—he seemed to realize he was speaking in riddles. He offered further clarification that when he had said that national security concerns would sometimes be a priority he had never meant that it would mean de-prioritizing values and explained further that it was never “an either or” choice.

Tillerson and the Trump Administration will face many foreign policy challenges in the months and years ahead. Tillerson was right to point to the need for assertive, clear American leadership to create a more stable, peaceful world. He will only be able to make progress on his stated policy priorities, however, if he is prepared to depart from the practices of past administrations and make good on his pledge to make the promotion of human rights, liberty, and dignity an indispensable element of the policies he helps to shape.