Rex Tillerson Spells Out U.S. Foreign Policy

The Trump administration’s “America First” agenda just became a little clearer.

Tillerson speaks to employees at the State Department in Washington, D.C. (Yuri Gripas / Reuters )

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson addressed the State Department on Wednesday, shedding light on various aspects of the Trump administration’s “America First” foreign-policy agenda. While President Trump has made clear his intent to prioritize American interests above those of foreign nations, the details of his foreign policy were largely speculative prior to Wednesday’s address.

In a 40-minute speech, his second to the department’s staff, Tillerson refrained from discussing the administration's proposed budget cuts. Nevertheless, he offered perhaps the most comprehensive roadmap of U.S. foreign policy, addressing the nation’s involvement with East Asia, Russia, Africa, and the Western Hemisphere. Here’s what Tillerson had to say about a few key issues.


Tillerson recognized the need for improved relations with Russia, telling his employees that, during an April meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he informed Putin that U.S.-Russia relations had reached their lowest point since the Cold War. Putin, he said, “shrugged his shoulders and nodded in agreement."

Tillerson also said that Acting Deputy Secretary of State Tom Shannon is leading a working group in an attempt to solve what’s “irritating” U.S.-Russia relations. “We’ve got a long list of things to work on,” Tillerson said, “from our arms agreements ... to obviously getting to Ukraine, Crimea, and other places where Russia’s not being particularly helpful today.” Achieving peace in Syria will likely be “the first big area of cooperation” between the U.S. and Russia, Tillerson said.

North Korea

According to Tillerson, the Trump administration is willing to impose sanctions on foreign companies that continue to do business with North Korea. Tillerson also said the U.S. is open to engaging in talks with North Korea about denuclearizing the Korean peninsula under the right conditions.


Borrowing a phrase from Trump, Tillerson said the U.S. has a “tremendous opportunity” to define its relationship with China in the coming decades—a sentiment he believes is mutual. The two nations have clashed over issues such as trade and cyber security, as well as China’s complicated relationship with North Korea. Last Friday, Tillerson spoke with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi following a heated U.N. Security Council meeting in which Wang clarified that China was not solely responsible for curbing North Korea's nuclear program. Despite this tension, Tillerson left the conversation with a sense of optimism. “I appreciate the constructive way that China has engaged with the United States,” he said.

Human Rights

Tillerson implied the U.S. would be less involved in humanitarian outreach moving forward, arguing that addressing human-rights concerns abroad might conflict with national safety. “In some circumstances, if you condition our national-security efforts on someone adopting our values, we probably can’t achieve our national security goals,” Tillerson said. According to Reuters, his remarks drew criticism from some members of the State Department.


Tillerson said the Trump administration is ramping up pressure on NATO to increase defense spending. The administration is also looking to improve deals with U.S. trading partners.

During his speech, Tillerson took the opportunity to address concerns within the State Department, referring to the department’s shifting direction as “really stressful for a lot of people.” He seemed intent on distancing the department from its Cold War-era mindset when, he argued, foreign relations were simpler. “It appeared that his intention was to inform us that our mission has changed from what it has been since 1945,” an anonymous State Department employee told Reuters. “It was clear that he came to talk, and not to listen.”

While employees were unable to ask questions during the speech, they were invited to participate in a survey, or “listening exercise,” to give their suggestions for overhauling the State Department. Tillerson reportedly hired a consulting firm to conduct the survey. Recently, he told NPR he wants to hear what employees have to say before selecting nominees for the nearly 200 State Department positions that have yet to be confirmed by the Senate.