Tillerson’s idea that in foreign policy American interests and American values are two separate things, the first mandatory, the second optional, reflects a misunderstanding of our past (not uncommon in this administration) and of the essence of our national character. The United States is surely the Manhattan skyline, the Kansas plains, the redwood forests, the Mississippi river. But it is, far more importantly, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address. You could cut down the forest or dry up the river and the country would be infinitely the poorer for it, but it would still be the United States of America. If Americans jettison the Bill of Rights and the ideas enshrined in it, they become a different country altogether.
Nor is it correct to suggest, as Tillerson did, that the choice is between insisting that other nations have to adopt the full suite of American principles of government and behavior and pursuing American interests. One can accept that Egypt will not adopt New England town meetings, but still persistently call out corruption; one can work with Recep Tayyip Erdogan while making clear American abhorrence of what he has done to freedom of the press in a country drifting into Islamist authoritarianism. Indeed, the case of Turkey helps illustrate why the United States should press—prudently but persistently—for open and law-abiding societies. They make infinitely better allies in the long run than thugs sitting on powder kegs.