Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has triggered a debate with his recent assertion, in a speech to State Department employees, that pushing American values, such as freedom and human dignity, when conducting foreign policy can be an obstacle to defending U.S. economic and national security interests.
In a world in which nations engaged primarily in commercial relations, with as little political connection as possible, an ideal espoused by George Washington in his Farewell Address, this wouldnt be an issue. But in our world it is. Sometimes we need to ignore other nations faults, while making clear what our own values are; we saw this in practice over the weekend in Saudi Arabia.
Should the U.S. abstain from clearly expressing its values in dealing with the outside world? Would Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Chinese communists or Irans mullahs be more inclined to deal favorably with the United States if President Trump ignored U.S. values when conducting foreign policy?
Those values, of course, have never been consistently defended. President Jimmy Carter championed human rights and banned the sale of military spare parts to South Africas Apartheid government. But he had no moral qualms about the atrocities committed by the Sandinistas when they overthrew the government of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza. Similarly, President George H.W. Bush stood for freedom in China, but didnt change his policy toward Beijing after the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Arguably, the application of values as an active foreign policy tool first made its appearance when President William McKinley in 1898 asked Congress to declare war on Spain for violating human rights in Cuba. President Woodrow Wilson took moral idealism further by championing democracy and self-determination. But espousing self-determination did not prevent him from intervening militarily in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Panama.
One final problem with moral idealism is where to draw the line. President Bill Clinton invoked values when he intervened militarily in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan and Kosovo. But he didnt lift a finger against the worst human rights atrocity of his political erathe tribal genocide by the Hutus against the Tutsi in Rwanda.
Given these facts, was Secretary Tillerson merely providing the Mandarins of Foggy Bottom with a sober reminder that values and policy often clash? Or was straying from Americas tradition of framing foreign policy under certain values clearly spelled out to the rest of the world?
Walter Lippman, the famed twentieth-century commentator, said that President Wilsons supreme spiritual error lay in forgetting that men are men and not gods.
True, but killing the gods is a very bad idea even if, in the world of practical politics, one is obliged to deal with demons, as is often the case.
Americas Founding Fathers failed to abolish slavery, but they framed the countrys political institutions under universal values. These values had such validity that future generations could use them against some of the practices, including slavery, that the founders had tolerated (or practiced).
Setting moral standards against which to judge U.S. foreign policy provides an instrument with which excesses, contradictions and inconsistencies can be exposed or punished.
It also helps to make tyrants around the world pay a certain price. Abandoning human rights and freedom in international discourse will make violations of human rights even easier. Thats why it is appropriate that moral standards be used to guide U.S. policy.
If one were to take the defense of human rights and freedom to the extreme, the U.S. would cut off relations with dozens of countriesthereby hindering the freedom of Americas civil society to interact with them, through commerce, travel and other means.
Its not necessary to choose between making diplomatic ties conditional on other countries respect for certain values or removing them from the conduct of foreign policy. Rather, it is a choice between conducting foreign policy under well-defined universal values, even if U.S. foreign partners do not abide by them, or letting barbaric tyrants conduct their affairs with no moral benchmark against which they can be judged.