Will Mr. Tillerson’s State Department Abandon Reagan’s Goals Of Right And Justice?


The United States views human rights as fundamental, absolutely fundamental to our relationship with the Soviet Union and all nations. (President Ronald Reagan, Remarks to Soviet Dissidents)

This week I encountered several articles reporting that the State Department is in the process of revising its mission statement.  They were all of them rooted in an opinion piece by Josh Rogin.  In it, he portrayed Secretary Rex Tillerson’s mandate for the revision as a sign that “he plans to lower the priority of democracy and human rights in U.S. foreign policy”:

In his first speech to his State Department employees, he said promoting American values “creates obstacles” to pursuing America’s national security interests. In March, he broke tradition by declining to appear personally to unveil the State Department’s annual human rights report.

Mr. Tillerson’s remarks were rather more complexly inflected than Mr. Rogin’s gloss makes them appear, for he said:

Guiding all 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.

Mr. Tillerson’s distinction between values that guide policy, and policies that guide actions wrestles with itself to find meaningful expression.  For instance, by way of illustrating values, he alludes to “freedom,” which is a condition for acting rather than an action. But he also associates the word value with “the way people are treated,” which is to say an ongoing course of action. In between the two he mentions “human dignity,” which is to say the worth or status ascribed to the human condition.  Though “worth” involves evaluation, its actual significance depends on the standard of measurement in terms of which the evaluation takes place. For purposes of evaluation, the worth of this standard has to be taken as meaningful in its own right, and therefore, fundamental.

With respect to the American people, the word “value” thus translates into “what has value for us.”  What is that, for the American people as a whole?  According to the oath he has sworn as Secretary of State, The Constitution of the United States says that Mr. Tillerson “and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; ….” It is, therefore, their sworn duty to uphold the Constitution’s worth.  To do so, they must evaluate situations and actions in accordance with the Constitution’s provisions, and act accordingly.

These provisions include strictures about how all persons who come under its jurisdiction must be treated.  Those strictures have to do with some exercise of capacities or rights, that is not to be infringed; or with the secure possession of goods, of which people are not to be deprived unlawfully; or with intrusions and punishments that are not to be inflicted upon them, and so forth.

Don’t these Constitutional provisions constitute policies that must be observed.  For instance, given their oath of office taken by its officials, wouldn’t it be fair to say that “it is the policy of the US government not to inflict cruel and unusual punishment on persons subject to its jurisdiction; not to deprive any such person of life, liberty or property without due process; …,” and so forth.  Obviously, as with all policies, these strictures have to be applied with due regard for existing capacities, circumstances and exigencies, including existential threats in time of war or dire emergency.  But even when national security is at stake, they are still relevant as the touchstone of those substantive goals and purposes for the sake of which the embattled forces of the nation are called to endure rigorous discipline, onerous hardship, and potentially fatal risks.

In a word, the various provisions of the Constitution of the United States institute policies.  Those policies serve the purposes set forth in its preamble, to include justice, and the security not just of physical persons and material possession, but of all that which the Constitution invokes when it mentions “the blessings of liberty.”  The challenge of American statecraft, which their oath requires all our government officials to meet, is the challenge of preserving liberty and its good fruits, not just for ourselves, but for generations yet unborn.

This is also the challenge Mr. Tillerson, and other high officials face, whose responsibilities encompass national security.  Can the nation be secure if liberty be lost?  Won’t liberty be lost, as Madison once said, if justice is not pursued until it be obtained?  Other cities, states and nations in human history could say “we have survived,” strictly on the basis of their material condition.  But if ourprinciples of right and justice are lost in practice, isn’t the existence of the American people, as it is defined in terms those principles, lost along with them?  In this respect, our policies express our principles and our actions must always have them in view.  Circumstances may require that we tack this way and that, in pursuit of our principled goals, but just as those sailed the seas depended on the North Star, we cannot know we’re headed in the right direction if ever we lose sight of our defining principles.

When I served him at the State Department, one thing I highly prized in the leadership of President Ronald Reagan was his ability to keep America’s premises in mind, so that the end they imply would inform our thinking, even if harsh necessity sometimes seemed to force us away from it.  He understood that a nation whose premises have to do with the rights (i.e., right actions) of all humanity cannot ignore it when evil and injustice threaten to overwhelm the decent opinion of humankind.  First, by the example of our self-government, but also, as and when our capacity warrants, by the tenor of our co-operation with people of good will throughout the world, we must work to strengthen the prospects of justice, right and rights for all people willing to join us in respecting them.  As we strengthen their just prospects, we increase the security of our own.

Let gangster governments preoccupy themselves with the contentious division of what they have ruthlessly despoiled. Even though we must at times associate with them, we ought never to imitate their ways.  Once we forget what is right, wrong will have already triumphed over us.  The government of the American people is best preoccupied with maintaining the premises of right, endowed by our Creator. For people determined to do so, according to His will, those premises house an inexhaustible resource, not just for ourselves, but for all humanity. And the great thing is, it is only increased by sharing.

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