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Tillerson Says Human Rights Will Not Interfere with 'America First' Agenda

'In the Tillerson/Trump/Exxon world, values are a liability. They stand in the way of making money and projecting power'

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson addressed State Department employees in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday. (Photo: Yuri Gripas / Reuters)

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson addressed State Department employees in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday. (Photo: Yuri Gripas / Reuters)

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stirred outrage on Wednesday when he outlined what an "America First" foreign policy will look like under U.S. President Donald Trump, namely that values such as freedom and human rights will not get in the way of "national security and economic prosperity."

"I think it is really important that all of us understand the difference between policy and values," Tillerson told employees during a supposed State Department "pep talk" on Wednesday evening that was reportedly transmitted to U.S. diplomatic outposts around the world. "Our values around freedom, human dignity, the way people are treated—those are our values. Those are not our policies." 

"In some circumstances, if you condition our national security efforts on someone adopting our values, we probably can't achieve our national security goals," he continued. "If we condition too heavily that others just adopt this value we have come to over a long history of our own, it really creates obstacles to our ability to advance on our national security interests our economic interests."

While some reacted with anger, saying that the former ExxonMobil CEO was bringing his Big Oil-style of governance to U.S. diplomacy, others noted that he was simply laying bare standing U.S. policy.

The Trump administration has come under fire for embracing some of the world's most reviled dictators, most recently North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, and Tillerson's speech was widely understood to be a defense of that pattern.

The address also comes amid rumors of massive cuts to State Department personnel. Earlier this week, Tillerson said he'd be asking employees to complete an anonymous survey "as input to efficiency improvements," which could include slashing up to 2,300 jobs. Though he did not mention the proposed budget cuts in his address, he acknowledged that the rumored changes are "really stressful for a lot of people."

For many observers, the corporate-style streamlining of the U.S. State Department and deprioritization of human rights were a reflection of Tillerson's background.


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"As Exxon CEO, Tillerson worked closely with long-standing dictatorships, where human suffering is most acute,"journalist Antonia Juhasz noted on Twitter‏.

Similarly, Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, wrote: "In the Tillerson/Trump/Exxon world, values are a liability. They stand in the way of making money and projecting power."

Responding to Tillerson's statement that American foreign policy in recent years had become "out of balance," Tom Malinowski, former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor under former President Barack Obama said the speech was "the most clueless...given by a secretary of state in my lifetime."

"Clueless of what came before him, and of how U.S. foreign policy has changed in the post-Cold War era; clueless about what the world expects of America, including that we defend universal values and norms; clueless about what the people he is supposed to lead actually do and the harm being done to their mission and morale by by his cluelessness," he told the Guardian. "The speech was like being told the amputation of your limbs will be good for you by a surgeon who skipped medical school."

Rob Berschinski, vice president of policy at Human Rights First, also wrote on Twitter that "Tillerson's false dichotomy between universal values & human dignity and our policies is misinformed and dangerous."

However, a number of journalists who have reported on the United States' lapses in regards to human rights—and support for governments, such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, who also abuse those rights—argued that Tillerson's statement was simply amplifying a "credo U.S. govt has followed for decades," as Shadowproof's Kevin Gostola put it.

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