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A back-of-the-bus human rights policy

Illustration by Tam Duong Jr./Getty Images/ EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS/Photo Illustration by Tam Duong Jr.

For anyone concerned with human rights, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s speech to State Department employees last week was disheartening.

Tillerson’s broad theme was: “How does this administration’s policy of ‘America First’ fit into our foreign policy?” His answer was a bloodless statement of realpolitik. US diplomats “really have to understand, in each country or each region of the world that we’re dealing with, what are our national security interests [and] what are our economic prosperity interests.” Only then, if possible, should “we . . . advocate and advance our values.”

To be sure, freedom and human dignity are fundamental American ideals, said Tillerson. But they aren’t necessarily principles we expect other nations to uphold.

“If you condition our national security efforts on someone adopting our values, we probably can’t achieve our national security goals,” he avowed. Human rights promotion sounds nice in the abstract, but sometimes “it really creates obstacles” to achieving US interests.


Judging from the headlines — “Tillerson downplays human rights in US foreign relations” was a typical example — the secretary of state’s message came through loud and clear. So did sharp criticism from some Republicans.

In an op-ed essay, Senator John McCain observed sorrowfully that Tillerson’s speech “sent a message to oppressed people everywhere: Don’t look to the United States for hope.” Eliot Cohen, a top State Department official under George W. Bush, deplored the “sloppiness” of Tillerson’s analysis, and recalled Dean Acheson’s enduring insight that in the arena of international diplomacy, America’s defense of liberty is “the greatest asset we have in all the world,” not an afterthought to be tucked in when convenient.

Principled Republicans have reason to be dismayed by the Trump administration’s non-interest in human rights. The last time a Republican was in the White House, the “freedom agenda” was a key priority. Bush spoke of liberty often and eloquently, going out of his way to encourage pro-democracy dissidents, and devoting his Second Inaugural Address to the urgency of human rights abroad: “We will persistently clarify,” said Bush, “the choice before every ruler and every nation — the moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right.”


But under Barack Obama, there was no Freedom Agenda. In human rights as in numerous other areas, Obama pointedly reversed the Bush approach. Instead of seeking to embolden victims of oppression, he angled to cut deals with the dictators who oppressed them — from the sinister ayatollah in Tehran to the KGB-trained ruler in Moscow to the ruthless caudillo in Havana.

With the end of the Bush presidency, democracy promotion vanished as a priority. “We’ve got to be hardheaded at the same time as we’re bighearted,” Obama told an interviewer in 2016. “There are going to be times where our security interests conflict with our concerns about human rights.” He was nothing if not consistent. As a presidential candidate more than eight years previously, he had sounded the same note, coolly declaring that not even “preventing a potential genocide” was a good reason to keep US troops in Iraq.

Obama chose secretaries of state who shared his back-of-the-bus approach to human rights. Hillary Clinton saw little point in raising human rights with China’s rulers, since “we pretty much know what they’re going to say.” John Kerry had argued for years that American foreign policy should downplay democracy and concentrate more on stability.

Tillerson’s speech at the State Department, in other words, was essentially a restatement of Obama administration policy. “Brutal thugs are smiling. . . Trump/Tillerson approach is green light for repression,” tweeted Samantha Power. That was a remarkable bit of chutzpah from one whose tenure as UN ambassador had been a master class in the squandering of moral authority. Power worked for a president on whose watch human rights took a beating worldwide. Tillerson works for a president on whose watch, so far, that hasn’t changed.


Brutal thugs may well be smiling. But after eight years, what else is new?

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.