Did an American Secretary of State throw human rights under the diplomatic bus? That’s certainly the way the Associated Press and other news media covered Rex Tillerson’s remarks to State Department employees yesterday — at least in their headlines. This somewhat convoluted tweet from the AP suggests that the US had abandoned human rights altogether:
Tillerson says US no more will condition foreign relationships on countries adopting US values such as human rights: https://t.co/doytwH0jny
— AP Politics (@AP_Politics) May 3, 2017
The reality, even in the AP’s story, turned out to be considerably more nuanced. As the headline notes, Tillerson called for “balancing US security interests, values,” noting that sometimes the former will take precedence over the latter — but that didn’t mean either were disposable:
The former Exxon Mobil CEO distinguished between U.S. “values,” which he described as enduring, and “policies,” which Tillerson said must adapt to the times.
“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. “It really creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests.”
Still, he insisted the U.S. won’t abandon core values. In some instances, Tillerson said, the U.S. should and will require other nations to adopt “certain actions as to how they treat people” if they want to cooperate with the U.S. In other instances, he said the U.S. would continue advocating for its values without using them as leverage.
“It doesn’t mean that we leave those values on the sidelines,” Tillerson said. “It doesn’t mean that we don’t advocate for and aspire to freedom, human dignity, and the treatment of people the world over.”
That’s hardly even a remarkable statement, let alone anything close to what was headlined on Twitter. It’s a statement of realpolitik, the approach of taking the world as it is and working for US security interests while still defending human rights. Every administration in the post-World War II period of American ascendancy has operated on this same policy, even if some might have tilted the balance slightly more in one way than another for brief periods of time. Our continuing alliance with Saudi Arabia is one extremely good example of that, a relationship which has been maintained enthusiastically by administrations of both parties despite legendary repression and human-rights abuses in the Wahhabi kingdom.
Let’s pose another example, one from a more recent period. Iran and Cuba are among the worst human-rights violators in the world. Which president started cutting deals with the brutal regimes in both countries, ostensibly to enhance US security interests? Hint: It wasn’t Donald Trump. When Barack Obama made those deals, he made them expressly on the basis of realpolitik, just as he did in 2009 when tacitly endorsing the sham election in Iran that started a short-lived uprising against the mullahs. Obama wanted to keep open the possibility of cutting a deal with the repressive theocracy, rather than side with the democrats in the street.
And let’s look at another prominent example. Which administration rushed to hand a “reset” button to Russia, another human-rights violator, and then three years later promised them more “flexibility” after a president’s re-election? The reset button was a deliberate and explicit embrace of realpolitik after George W. Bush froze out the Russians for invading Georgia. In that infamous 2012 sotto voce reassurance to Dmitri Medvedev, Obama may have had legitimate nat-sec reasons for encouraging Moscow to keep lines of communication open; he wanted to pursue further nuclear-arms reductions and hoped to get Vladimir Putin on board to deal with Iran. But that’s precisely the same balancing policy Tillerson describes here, and which the AP and other media outlets suddenly find so shocking.
There may be plenty of opportunities to criticize the Trump administration’s foreign policy. This unremarkable statement of continuity in balancing security interests with core values isn’t one of them. And the hysteria produced over this anodyne address only demonstrates the bias in the media’s coverage of the Trump administration.