Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent state of the State Department address continues to make news for all the wrong reasons, with Tillerson three weeks after delivering the speech trying to fend off Sen. John McCain’s sharp critique of this not-so-new brand of realpolitik.
After hearing, reading and then re-reading Tillerson’s remarks, which tried to explain how “this administration’s policies of ‘America first’ fit into our foreign policy” and indeed how “America First” even fits into the post-World War II foreign policy consensus, I am struck not so much by Tillerson’s attempt to decouple American interests and ideals, but by the chasm separating this speech from one given more than 75 years ago.
Although Tillerson argued that “guiding all of our foreign policy actions are our fundamental values: our values around freedom, human dignity, the way people are treated,” he was quick to emphasize “the difference between policy and values.” “If we condition too heavily that others must adopt this value that we’ve come to over a long history of our own,” he explained, “it really creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests. It doesn’t mean that we leave those values on the sidelines.” What it means, according to Tillerson, is that America must focus on “what are our national security interests…our economic prosperity interests, and then as we can advocate and advance our values, we should.”
Translation: Interests first, then somewhere down the road—or tossed near the sidelines—ideals. Thus, Tillerson sidestepped human rights and democracy and religious liberty—all words unspoken in his 6,500-word address.
That brings us to that other speech, the one from more than 75 years ago. It was delivered by President Franklin Roosevelt in January 1941, 11 months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. It’s commonly called the “Four Freedoms” speech because in it FDR asked Americans to “look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms…freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world…freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world…freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world…freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world…the supremacy of human rights everywhere.”
What’s especially striking about FDR’s speech—and relevant to the Trump-Tillerson brand of realpolitik—is not just FDR’s unabashed and unembarrassed embrace of values, but that the main focus of FDR’s “Four Freedoms” speech was actually his description of “unprecedented” threats to “American security” and explanation of “why the future of all the American republics is today in serious danger.”
Thus, he called for “armed defense of democratic existence,” “a swift and driving increase in our armament production,” and the fusion of our ideals and our interests. Indeed, the speech reads like an argument for a values-driven foreign policy—and a counterargument to Tillerson: In words that are especially apt for today’s trade über alles caucus, FDR explained what is obvious from both history and the headlines: “No realistic American can expect from a dictator's peace international generosity, or return of true independence, or world disarmament, or freedom of expression, or freedom of religion—or even good business.” Yet the realists continue to promise and expect unrealistic results from untrustworthy partners.
Even during the high noon of godless tyrannies, FDR declared that America stood for religious liberty—everywhere. Even as a new dark age descended on free peoples and free governments, FDR declared that America stood for freedom of speech—everywhere. Even as autocrats trumpeted autarky, FDR pushed for liberal and open trade—everywhere. Even as not-so-faraway monsters turned government from a servant of the people into a tool of conquest and oppression and mass-murder, FDR declared that no one should fear his government or his neighbor’s government—and brandished “the supremacy of human rights everywhere.”
For FDR, America’s interests and ideals were self-reinforcing. He understood that America’s values were—and always are—on the frontlines. They cannot be left on the sidelines. And he argued that it was unrealistic for Americans to think otherwise—or for a president to try to conduct foreign policy and defend the nation without America’s ideals guiding the defense of her interests.