Editorial Board

Rex Tillerson: Show Up for Human Rights

When the State Department released its annual report on human rights, the new boss was nowhere to be found.

Invisible from Foggy Bottom?

Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In another year or another administration, the absence of a cabinet official at a press conference would merit no comment. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s decision not to attend Friday’s release of the department’s annual human rights report, however, is a small but telling sign of a more profound and dangerous shift: President Donald Trump’s apathy for the values that have long fortified U.S. power and influence.

“My job is not to represent the world,” Trump said in his address to Congress last month. “My job is to represent the United States of America.” While it’s hard to argue with this statement literally, it’s also hard to take it seriously. Representing the U.S. means standing up for its principles as well as its interests, and the two are less divisible than Trump seems to think. However flawed in practice, America’s avowed commitment to democracy and human rights -- two concepts that were absent from his speech -- has always been a wellspring of its strength, which has grown when both have spread.

Unfortunately, Trump’s proposed 37 percent cut in the State Department’s budget will gut its ability to advance either America’s interests or values. Stopping terrorism, for instance, requires diplomats on the ground to manage allies and report threats. As Defense Secretary James Mattis once bluntly put it: “If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition.”

The same logic goes for opening markets and vetting visa applicants, to name two of Trump’s other top priorities. And that’s not even mentioning the many other tasks today’s diplomats perform, from watching over Americans overseas and monitoring elections to protecting the environment and U.S. intellectual property.

Trump has tapped into the skepticism that many Americans have of more “pay any price, bear any burden” calls for U.S. global leadership, especially on behalf of a liberal world order that they see providing diminishing returns. The answer to their doubts and fears, however, is to fix the system, not try to turn back the clock to the 1920s, with its tariff walls, immigration restrictions, and competing economic and ethnic nationalisms.  At the same time, champions of liberal internationalism can’t simply fall back on empty slogans about the righteousness and benefits of globalization.

It almost goes without saying that this is a fragile moment, for both the administration and the liberal democratic order more generally. Some of the challenges Trump is facing would confront any U.S. president; some are of his own making. Regardless, what Americans need most right now are honesty and reassurance -- about the pitfalls of this new world and the plan for avoiding them. So far, neither the president nor his secretary of state seem very interested in providing them.

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