It was reassuring to hear Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tell his department on Wednesday that “guiding all of our foreign policy actions are our fundamental values: our values around freedom, human dignity, the way people are treated.” President Donald Trump’s rhetoric at times has put that basic principle in doubt.

Less reassuring was Tillerson’s explanation of how the principle would be put into practice. When he followed his general explanation with an exhaustive tour of the world that did not mention human rights or values anywhere – not in North Korea, China, Russia, the Middle East or South America – he raised the question of how much his guiding principle will matter.

Tillerson was right to point out that the United States must safeguard its national security and economic prosperity if Americans are to “protect our ability to be that voice of our values now and forevermore.” And he was right that, to protect its security and economy, the United States at times must make allowances for dictators. “I hear from government leaders all over the world: You just can’t demand that of us, we can’t move that quickly, we can’t adapt that quickly, OK?”

Secretaries of state always have heard such pleas from allies who are also human rights abusers, and they frequently (too frequently, in our view) have found it in the United States’ interest to indulge such pleas.

But Tillerson errs in a couple of fundamental ways. First, he perpetuates a dangerous idea when he refers exclusively to “our values.” The ideals of free speech and expression, worship and assembly, and living in dignity, free of coercion, are universal values that apply as much to a person in Shanghai as in Springfield. Leaders such as Xi Jinping of China and Vladimir Putin of Russia often denigrate these as Western values as an excuse to deny freedom to their own people. Tillerson should not feed that misconception.

Second, he seems to put values in a basket of their own, separate from “America First” national interests. “So, it’s how do we advance our national security and economic interests on this hand, our values are constant over here,” he said. But values and their promotion are integral to U.S. national interests. Governments that are chosen by their people and that treat their populations fairly are more likely to interact fairly in the international sphere as well. Corrupt autocracies such as Putin’s are more likely to whip up nationalist animosities to distract from their own illegitimacy. North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is a separate issue from the concentration camps in which it imprisons hundreds of thousands of its own people, but they are not unrelated – and North Korea’s suffocating dictatorship helps make it a threat to peace.

Does Tillerson recognize that connection? The fact that his lengthy tour of the horizon, region by region, neglected to mention values isn’t a good sign. Keeping human rights and democracy at the forefront of diplomacy, along with economics and security, does not create “obstacles,” as Tillerson put it. Rather, it is an enduring source of American strength, a source that no totalitarian or authoritarian system can ever match.

Editorial by The Washington Post

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