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.