With the myriad U.S. interests at stake in foreign policy, where exactly do human rights fit in?
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke to this question on Wednesday while discussing the role of values in U.S. foreign policy decision-making.
Now I think it’s important to also remember that guiding all of our foreign policy actions are our fundamental values: our values around freedom, human dignity, the way people are treated. Those are our values. Those are not our policies; they’re values. And the reason it’s important, I think, to keep that well understood is policies can change. They do change. They can change … Our values never change.
Tillerson’s remarks suggest that human rights will be a component of the Trump administration’s foreign policy paradigm.
As in past administrations, U.S. engagement with foreign nations takes into consideration U.S. national interests, national security priorities, opportunities for economic advancement, and of course, human rights.
Tillerson reiterated that U.S. engagement with foreign countries, especially on human rights, may look different based on the various interests at stake.
Although frank, this admission reflects a realistic understanding of the complex nature of U.S. relations with other countries. It says that the U.S. should make clear its values and voice them, but also recognize that a foreign policy solely focused on human rights would be restrictive.
Unfortunately, the U.S. must deal with governments that are less than perfect in their respect for human rights—sometimes considerably so. But perspective and consideration are necessary.
Consider the cases of China and Cuba.
In addressing national security threats, the U.S. needs to work with China on issues like maritime security and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, even if we regard China’s domestic policies as abhorrent.
By contrast, restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba without requiring changes to its own repressive policies sends the signal that human rights are not a priority for the U.S.
Either way, Tillerson acknowledged that “…in some circumstances, [the U.S.] should and [does] condition our policy engagements on people adopting certain actions as to how they treat people.”
Balancing these priorities requires sound advice and judgement. To ensure that human rights are a priority, the administration should move quickly to fill crucial positions in the State Department.
Early on in the administration, President Donald Trump held a meeting with key stakeholders in the fight against human trafficking, signaling that U.S. leadership on this issue is critical to ending the global scourge of trafficking.
Human trafficking may prove to be a gateway issue for other human rights concerns internationally and at home.
With the U.S. Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons report slated to come out mid-summer, and key legislation—the Trafficking Victims Protection Act—up for reauthorization, the conversation on trafficking will continue to be of importance through the rest of 2017.
The administration should take advantage of the ongoing conversation on human trafficking to reassert U.S. leadership, not just on trafficking, but also on other pressing human rights challenges. These include major threats to democracy and good governance across the globe, as well as the continued rise of religious persecution.
Advancing first principles and core American values overseas has been a critical component of past administrations, and should remain a critical part of the Trump administration’s foreign policy priorities. For that, more critical roles need to be filled.
Tillerson’s remarks offer promise that this will continue to be the case, but he cannot do it alone.