Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson finally met with the State Department’s workforce to outline how President Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda applies to foreign policy. In his remarks, Tillerson focused on the core mission of national security. He insisted that American values still matter, but was clear that the U.S. is no longer in the business of promoting those values as universal aspirations. It’s a big loss for American influence in the world.
When the State Department employees gathered last week to hear from their boss, they were braced for more details about budget cuts and downsizing. Instead, they heard Tillerson’s views on how America First relates to the department’s work. Tillerson described the State Department’s mission as protecting national security and promoting economic prosperity. Full stop.
He acknowledged that this pursuit of self-interest need not happen at others’ expense, and that partnerships and alliances are critical to the pursuit of those security and economic objectives. But the absence of a more ideals-driven mission—from preventing conflict, to assisting other states and their citizens to achieve economic growth as well as more inclusive and effective governance—was striking. He conceded that, in some cases, Washington “should condition [its] policy engagements on people adopting certain actions as to how they treat people.” But the main takeaway from his remarks was that American values are American, not universal, and the U.S. has no ambition or expectation that others adopt them.