Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s remarks to State Department employees last week on values and interests in U.S. foreign policy were shocking. For them and billions of people around the world, they were discouraging and demoralizing. They betray a lack of understanding of the meaning of public service — especially of the Foreign Service — and ignore America’s extraordinarily unique role in the world.
Like all those in public service, the men and women of the civil service and Foreign Service come to the State Department with exceptional skills and dedication. But unique to them — and to their colleagues in the Defense Department and the intelligence agencies — is the passion for America’s role in the world. Their work, in Washington and in the more than 200 embassies, consulates and diplomatic missions worldwide, is an opportunity to make a difference for their nation and the world. Diplomats of few other nations can make such a claim.
That inspiration emanates from the values of all Americans and, indeed, people everywhere: “freedom, human dignity, the treatment of others,” but also justice, equality, opportunity and many more. Were it a matter of our security or economy, the men and women of the State Department might have chosen another federal agency in which to serve or entered the nonprofit or private sectors. Carrying America’s message abroad, however, is a duty that every American diplomat proudly does and, as an American, is uniquely empowered to do. It’s why they serve.
Hearing America’s chief diplomat speak of our values as “obstacles” or the country as “off track” was disheartening. Mr. Secretary, will we now press our values-driven interests less strongly? Set them aside? If so, it will represent a transformation of epochal implications for the future of all who serve America abroad. American diplomacy has always been more than securing trade deals, military basing rights, or U.N. votes. America has a message, and it is the message and aspiration of all humanity.
Tillerson’s remarks on values may have had more portentous ramifications for many millions of people abroad.
Few Americans, whether those serving abroad or citizens working at home, need reminding that America’s commitment to its values has often been honored in the breach. The following examples attest to America’s ability to muddle values and interests: the CIA-inspired, White House-approved coup of a democratically elected Iranian prime minister in 1953; the government-approved plan to supply Iraqi President Saddam Hussein with chemical weapons know-how and then block Iran’s appeal to the U.N. Security Council when Iraq deployed chemical weapons against Iranian troops during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war; the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages deal; the failure to seriously push for human rights in the Middle East before the early 2000s; and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Nevertheless, millions of people in countries like China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, Cuba and many others look to us to defend their rights and hopes when no one else will. Similarly, our allies around the world stand behind and support us when we stand up for values all humanity shares. Those who can’t speak for themselves and those who join in chorus with us react with horror to the secretary’s claim, “I hear 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, OK?”
Mr. Secretary, do you really believe that? State Department employees hear that very rationalization and dozens more like it all the time in the conduct of their duties. In my own experience in Nicaragua in the 1980s, the U.S.S.R. in the early 1990s and in the Middle East for nearly 20 years, I heard those comments and others more than I could ever count.
On press freedom, human rights, religious freedom, human trafficking, anti-corruption, imprisoned dissidents and civil society, governments not accountable to their publics have mastered deceit, delay, obfuscation and excuse-making to enrich themselves, oppress opposition, curtail freedom and maintain power. Surely, that can’t be a surprise to you, Mr. Secretary.
Oppressed citizens around the world who look to America for some vestige of voice will have experienced devastating disappointment to hear that America may set aside its vaunted values in pursuit of parochial interests.
Will America become like so many other governments? If so, then we lower ourselves, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “to some (other) country where they make no pretense of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance — where despotism can be taken pure and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”