U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson emphasized a distinction between policies and values in his May 3, 2017, address to State Department employees.
“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,” he stated. “Those are our values. Those are not our policies; they’re values.”
At the heart of a speech that ranged over a wide range of contemporary world issues was the question of how to translate “America First” into foreign policy.
Tillerson understands “America First” as a call to secure America’s national security and economic interests.
He was at pains to stress that the American values around freedom, human dignity and the way people are treated never change but policy, in the pursuit of “America First,” may.
“I think it’s really important that all of us understand the difference between policy and values, and in some circumstances, we should and do condition our policy engagements on people adopting certain actions as to how they treat people. They should. We should demand that. But that doesn’t mean that’s the case in every situation,” Tillerson asserted.
He continued, “And so we really have to understand, in each country or each region of the world that we’re dealing with, what are our national security interests, what are our economic prosperity interests, and then as we can advocate and advance our values, we should – but the policies can do this; the values never change.”
I think someone needs to point out to Tillerson that this dualism doesn’t work.
Values are evidenced by what we do, not what we say. What happens in practice betrays our values and convictions irrespective of whatever creeds, constitutions or value statements we print on paper.
It’s not for nothing that theologian James McClendon argued, “Virtues have their home in connection with particular practices whose pursuit evokes exactly those virtues,” or, as Jesus put it so succinctly in the Sermon on the Mount, “By their fruit you will know them” (Matthew 7:16-20).
Furthermore, “America First” is a value statement that of necessity puts the freedom and human dignity of non-Americans if not second, certainly of secondary consideration.
Tillerson said that one of the most difficult things he’s thought about is how to advance all of these things – “America First” and the values of freedom and human dignity – simultaneously. I’m not surprised.
It may be that the residual memory of the values of freedom and human dignity may ameliorate some of the ambitions of the present administration and the policies that emerge under “America First.”
It may be that the realities of global interdependence and the need for cooperation – which Tillerson acknowledges – act as a restraint on what might otherwise be a thoroughly myopic strategy. But make no mistake about it: “America First” is the new determinant value.
Every government has a responsibility to seek the welfare, well-being and safety of its people, including the U.S. government.
The level of abuse and exploitation of people by corrupt governments around the world signals the need for voices to call out evil and deploy resources to defend the weak. But, it’s a short step from “America First” to “to hell with the rest.”
When the irreconcilable nature of these competing values becomes clear, let’s pray that freedom and human dignity win out.
David McMillan provides operational and academic support at the International Baptist Theological Study (IBTS) Centre in Amsterdam. He served previously as a Baptist pastor in Northern Ireland for over two decades. A version of this article first appeared on the IBTS blog and is used with permission.