In defense of Secretary Tillerson’s realist view

By Daniel DePetris

In the short time Rex TIllerson has served as America’s top diplomat, he’s managed to upset most members of the foreign policy establishment. Not surprisingly, everything Tillerson does or says is subjected to intense public criticism­––the latest and perhaps the most visceral reaction is a result of his first major foreign policy speech to employees of the State Department last week. His speech was lambasted by Republican and Democratic lawmakers, ex-State Department officials, members of the foreign policy intelligentsia, and human rights advocates as both woefully insufficient and dangerously shortsighted.

Most of these critics have focused on one section of Tillerson’s speech, in which he discussed the collision between U.S. interests and values and how, in many cases, insisting that countries transform themselves into liberty-loving democracies gets in the way of what the United States seeks to accomplish. “[I]n some circumstances,” Tillerson told his employees, "if you condition our national security efforts on someone adopting our values, we probably can’t achieve our national security goals or our national security interests.” The U.S., Tillerson continues, will always keep the promotion of human rights and universal values in its back pocket, but to badger foreign leaders constantly with the need to reform their political systems can often cap Washington’s ability to maintain key strategic relationships.

Eliot Cohen, a former Pentagon and State Department official in the George W. Bush administration, wrote that if Tillerson truly believes what he’s saying, "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.” Former Clinton administration and Brookings Institution senior fellow Ted Piccone was just as concerned about the Secretary’s message to his workforce: "In one speech, Tillerson tossed out over four decades of bipartisan consensus.” And in an op-ed in the New York Times, U.S. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) lectured Tillerson, writing that his address had the unintended impact of sending "a message to oppressed people everywhere: Don’t look to the United States for hope."

The verdict from the establishment is in, and it isn’t pretty: Tillerson is throwing America’s moral reputation away and deliberately making democracy promotion more difficult. If America isn’t standing up for morality, they ask, who will?

But Tillerson’s message is not destructive, as his critics claim. In fact, his critics misrepresent what he actually said.

Some of Tillerson’s decisions have indeed been unwise; skipping the annual release of the State Department’s human rights report was a terrible public relations blunder, and it made him look completely detached from the State Department’s human rights and democracy bureau. His decision to lift human rights restrictions on the sale of defense equipment to Gulf Arab countries like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain will probably do more harm than good, particularly when these same countries are engaged in a civil war in Yemen and responsible for the vast majority of the civilian casualties there. And under Tillerson’s —leadership, Foggy Bottom has not so far operated efficiently—1 out of every 3 ambassador positions are left unfilled, and 22 out of 24 assistant secretaries haven’t even been named yet.

But Tillerson’s address should be viewed for what it is: a call for the kind of realism and mind-over-matter foreign policy—a doctrine of flexibility that hasn’t really been a priority in Washington since the end of the Cold War.

It’s a return to the realization that, while the world would certainly be a better place if countries embraced a democratic way of life, the United States still has incredibly difficult and important business to do. Washington must work within the international environment that it’s been dealt, which means U.S. diplomats simply would not be able to get anything done—negotiating bilateral trade deals, increasing intelligence cooperation, helping to end civil wars through diplomacy, and maintaining a coalition to fight terrorism—if it refuses to work with less-than-ideal governments and rulers.

None of what Tillerson said means the United States must not speak clearly and decisively about human rights. There may be times when abuses reach a level that requires Washington to revisit how it does business with the government perpetuating them.

Whether we want to admit it or not, U.S. foreign policy is not all about advocating the spread of democratic ideals—at least it shouldn’t be. And at the same time, a realist foreign policy does not mean abandoning support for liberal democracies.

In time, U.S. presidents have realized democracy promotion is only one of several priorities that that the U.S. concerns itself with, but it can’t come at the expense of pursuing our vital national security interests.

There is a reason why every U.S. president has worked with unsavory regimes (think Carter and the Shah of Iran, Reagan and Central America’s right-wing dictatorships, Clinton and Russia’s Boris Yeltsin, and George Bush and Saudi Arabia): because without a functional relationship, fighting terrorism, rolling back the Soviet Union’s influence in the Western Hemisphere, and ensuring the free flow of oil resources could very well have been threatened.

Working with authoritarian governments can be a tough pill to swallow—but when America’s interests require it, there is no other choice. To listen to the critics, the U.S. would have abandoned our alliances with illiberal regimes to win World War II and the Cold War.

No one argues every economic interest—no matter how small—trumps human rights concerns. But the primary objective of U.S. foreign policy is to protect and advance American security.

Tillerson’s speech isn’t some historical inflection point in American history. The U.S. will continue to speak out on human rights issues when it’s desired, and Tillerson will continue to press many of his counterparts in private about the need to shape up. But in some situations, the U.S. has bigger fish to fry.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The Washington Examiner on May 11, 2017. Read more HERE