Tillerson: Pushing human rights abroad 'creates obstacles' to US interests

PHOTO: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gives the thumbs-up as he arrives to speak to State Department employees, May 3, 2017, at the State Department in Washington.PlayJacquelyn Martin/AP Photo
WATCH Tillerson: American values should be separate from foreign policy

In advocating for America’s interests abroad, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said today that American values must be separate from American foreign policy, even as they “guide” it.

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“Guiding all our foreign policy actions are our fundamental values -- our values around freedom, human dignity, the way people are treated,” he said. “Those are our values. Those are not our policies, ” Tillerson told State Department employees in a speech today.

What that means in practice, he said, is that sometimes values have to take a back seat to economic interests or national security.

“If we condition too heavily that others must adopt this value that we’ve come to after a long history of our own, it really creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests,” he said, arguing the U.S. must first ask “what are our national security interests, what are our economic prosperity interests, and then if we can advocate and advance our values, we should.”

Tillerson's remarks set off a fresh wave of backlash from administration critics still questioning President Trump's offers to meet with controversial foreign leaders like Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and North Korea's Kim Jong Un.

“Brutal thugs are smiling. Human rights are not only US values.They are universal. Trump/Tillerson approach is green light for repression,” tweeted Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President Obama.

Tillerson's State Department is facing a budget cut of more than 28 percent that the Trump administration outlined in its first budget proposal. Tillerson's review of the agency's spending started Monday with a “listening tour” -- a survey asking for feedback from all department employees in the nation's capital and at diplomatic posts around the world.

Tillerson offered no details of how he would make cuts. Instead, he said he is open to the recommendations and ideas of the department’s civil servants and foreign service officers.

“We have no preconceived notions on the outcome. I didn't come with a solution in a box when I showed up. I came with a commitment to look at it and see if we can improve it,” he told a packed room.

In particular, he wants the institution to “adapt” to new challenges and transition from its Cold War-era models and habits, he said.

While offering few details on how the agency will meet the administration's proposed budget cuts, Tillerson tried to reassure an anxious audience of employees.

“I want to condition you to be ready to participate in the next phase because that's when it will become more challenging,” he said. “But we're all on this boat, on this voyage -- I’m not going to call it a cruise, it may not be that fun,” he added to laughter.

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