Rex Tillerson Doesn't Understand America

His idea that the country’s interests and its values are two separate things—the first mandatory, the second optional—reflects a misreading of the past.

Yuri Gripas / Reuters

On May 3, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gave his first big speech about American foreign policy to the employees of the Department of State. In so doing, he gave those who think that American diplomacy matters more reason to worry.

It was a speech given in the style of an executive delivering a pep talk to anxious employees, a substantial number of whom suspect the boss intends to declare them redundant. That is, of course, the actual situation. The diplomats and civil servants politely applauding were listening to a leader who, as far as we know, did not fight a proposed 29 percent cut to his Department’s budget, plus layoffs of key personnel. He did not speak from notes or behind a podium, presumably in order to be more relatable, as they say, even as he laid out the principles of American foreign policy.

He repeatedly invoked, approvingly, the phrase “America First.” Like the other sane and reasonable members of the administration, he is attempting to domesticate a phrase that is unalterably associated with and tarnished by the movement that opposed American entry into World War II. Like the national security adviser and secretary of defense, he has no choice but to pay ingratiating tribute to his boss’s favorite foreign policy phrase, which is one of the ways in which the president influences them as much as, or more than, they influence him.

Tillerson explained “America First” this way. It applies to “national security and economic prosperity, and that doesn’t mean it comes at the expense of others.” This defies common sense. Surely, if we’re first, someone else is second, third, and finally last. Tillerson made it clear that he believes in American freedoms for the United States, and acknowledged that they have some role in shaping American policies, but then walked that notion back in his most disturbing sentence: “We really have to understand, in each country or region of the world that we’re dealing with, what are our national security interests, what are our economic prosperity interests, and then as we can advocate and advance our values, we should” (emphasis added).

If this is seriously meant, American officials should declare their support for free elections, the rule of law, or rights for women abroad only if that would not thereby jeopardize national security and economic interests, however slight. And since there are always some kind of security and economic interests in play, America cannot and should not stand for much in the world beyond a kind of national selfishness, less intense perhaps but essentially no different than that of China or Russia.

Perhaps this was just sloppiness, although one would have wished the nation’s senior diplomat should know the importance of precise speech in a statement that is posted for all to see on the State Department’s website. Which is why effective secretaries of state make major proclamations with care, in writing, and with due regard for their wider audience.

Tillerson’s idea that in foreign policy American interests and American values are two separate things, the first mandatory, the second optional, reflects a misunderstanding of our past (not uncommon in this administration) and of the essence of our national character. The United States is surely the Manhattan skyline, the Kansas plains, the redwood forests, the Mississippi river. But it is, far more importantly, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address. You could cut down the forest or dry up the river and the country would be infinitely the poorer for it, but it would still be the United States of America. If Americans jettison the Bill of Rights and the ideas enshrined in it, they become a different country altogether.

Nor is it correct to suggest, as Tillerson did, that the choice is between insisting that other nations have to adopt the full suite of American principles of government and behavior and pursuing American interests. One can accept that Egypt will not adopt New England town meetings, but still persistently call out corruption; one can work with Recep Tayyip Erdogan while making clear American abhorrence of what he has done to freedom of the press in a country drifting into Islamist authoritarianism. Indeed, the case of Turkey helps illustrate why the United States should press—prudently but persistently—for open and law-abiding societies. They make infinitely better allies in the long run than thugs sitting on powder kegs.

Tillerson continued his remarks with a tour d’horizon, a description of America’s position around the world. He spoke primarily about North Korea, China, Russia, and ISIS. He barely mentioned our relationships with the liberal democracies who form the bedrock of America’s alliances save to complain about European NATO members not paying their fair share. The main question is whom we can make deals with, and whom we cannot. He referred to Saudi Arabia; he omitted Great Britain, Germany, and France, whose soldiers have fought and died alongside ours in Afghanistan.

It was an intellectually shallow performance. “In many respects,” Tillerson said, “the Cold War was a lot easier” than the world of today. No it was not—not if you worried about nuclear war, were involved in two hot wars that cost an order of magnitude more casualties than the United States suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan, or had to cope with decolonization, local communist movements, and the cultural upheaval of the 1960s.

This superficiality matters too: In the absence of historical perspective and understanding, foreign policy degenerates into crisis management; in the absence of values-informed and in some cases values-driven policy it can easily slip into short-sighted tactical accommodations, the equivalent of playing chess one move at a time, which is a good way to get mated. And it is not any more reassuring that the secretary thanked those sending him one-page memoranda “because I’m not a fast reader.” That is becomingly modest, but the truth is, it is no great qualification for an office that demands intellectual depth.

Tillerson spoke in the auditorium named after Dean Acheson, secretary of state from 1949 through 1953 and probably the greatest 20th-century occupant of that office. On December 20, 1951, Acheson gave a speech that laid out a view of American foreign policy very different from Tillerson’s. After a careful survey of events in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia that began with America’s friends rather than her enemies, he concluded:

The greatest asset we have in all the world—even greater than our material power—is the American idea. No one needs to tell an American audience all the things that this holds for us. It is so much a part of our everyday lives that we do not stop to define it, or to put it into packages for export. But throughout the world, wherever people are oppressed, wherever people dream of freedom and opportunity, they feel the inspiration of the American idea.

What we are trying to do, in our foreign policy, is to make possible a world in which our own people, and all people who have the same determination, can work in their own way toward a better life, without having to bear the yoke of tyranny.

Acheson’s erudition, tempered eloquence, and passionate belief in the connection between what the United States stands for and how it acts in the world is a model for any American secretary of state. He was no naif, and he was no crusader, but rather a deeply and widely read man who understood his country, the tides of world politics, and America’s moment in history, which is why his accomplishments endured and his reputation shines. Of Secretary Tillerson, as he contemplates a chaotic collection of seemingly unrelated crises, and meekly prepares to savage the budget and organization of the department confided to his care, that will probably not be said.