Tillerson and Trump: On Morality Versus Realism
In last Sunday’s television interview, Secretary Rex Tillerson’s statement of American commitment to democracy at home and abroad was unexceptional on its face: “I don't believe anyone doubts the American people's values or the commitment of the American government or the government's agencies to advancing those values and defending those values.”
However, coming on the heels of President Trump’s seeming to accord moral equivalence to “many sides” in the Charlottesville protests, the Tillerson comment was widely viewed as a repudiation of his boss. One political critic of the administration gleefully tweeted that the secretary had “thrown Trump under the bus.”
When pressed to explain the difference in tone, Tillerson said: “The President speaks for himself ..I’ve made my own comments as to our values ... in a speech, I gave to the State Department.” It was in that maiden address that he declared “America First doesn’t mean that we leave those values on the sidelines.”
The latest interview provided fodder for critical media and political commentary. Some even speculate – or recommend – that Tillerson will be forced to resign over his perceived differences with the president.
Yet, busy as they are making short-term points against the president, the presumed keepers of the American conscience have missed the larger iterative interweaving of moral and strategic considerations between Trump and his secretary of state. They have both affirmed America’s leadership role in the world while suggesting some new calibration. For example, the president declared in May in Saudi Arabia that the United States would no longer go around the world telling other countries how to conduct their affairs. “We are not here to lecture. We are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship.”
Tillerson reflected that more subdued approach when he addressed the most dangerous quandary facing the United States pitting moral considerations against strategic constraints – North Korea’s nuclear challenge. It could be argued that his lofty language last week implicitly contrasted with his August 1 assurance to Pyongyang that, despite its ranking as one of the cruelest, most odious governments on earth, “We do not seek a regime change. We do not seek the collapse of the regime … We are not your enemy. We are not your threat."
However, Kim Jong Un does not fear only America’s military power. Even if the Trump administration were to explicitly reject preemptive or preventive war to rid the world of the North Korean danger, the regime, given its horrific human rights record, would be justified in seeing the United States as a mortal threat to its survival.
America need not deliberately to “go abroad seeking monsters to destroy” as John Quincy Adams famously observed, to engender fear and hatred among today’s tyrants. The fact that America exists as a powerful and vibrant democracy and that it espouses its own values as universal is enough to challenge dictatorships everywhere.
The president alluded to that reality in his Inaugural Address: “We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example. We will shine for everyone to follow.” That echoed the “shining city on a hill” that President Reagan often cited in his clarion call for men and women everywhere to claim their rightful heritage as free people.
And, of course, populations around the world have done precisely that, toppling authoritarian rulers left and right. Naturally, the remaining dictators have a different view of the American model and will fight for their own survival. That results not only in bloody internal conflicts, as in Syria and other places today, but it can also spill over into wars between states. It is why even moral and rhetorical support for human aspirations to freedom is often muted despite the American impulse to side with oppressed peoples.
From the start, Tillerson has grappled with the perennial challenge confronting the United States as both the chief exponent of universal human rights and political freedom – inherently revolutionary concepts – and its role as the primary guardian of international peace and security
In that introductory talk to his department employees, he gave a fuller explication of the moral-strategic dilemma:
“In some circumstances, if you condition our national security efforts on someone adopting our values, we probably can’t achieve our national security goals. 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. It doesn’t mean that we don’t advocate for and aspire to freedom, human dignity and the treatment of people the world over.”
However, the secretary and the president must soon come to grips with the reality that decades of U.S. policy have advanced neither our moral aspirations for the North Korean people nor the security of South Korea, Japan, and the United States. Both our values and our interests have suffered badly under three generations of Kim family oppression and aggression.
As the North Korea situation reaches a point in extremis, the military option, which all presidents have said remains on the table, moves beyond the theoretical to the conceivable. To avoid that outcome, the administration will have to decide how far it is willing to punish China for its demonstrable complicity in the development of Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs and its refusal to exercise its unique power to modify North Korean behavior.
In addition to applying secondary sanctions on the myriad Chinese entities that have sustained the Kim regime, and before resorting to kinetic action, the president and his national security team should seriously consider (a) redeploying U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea and/or (b) encouraging Tokyo and Seoul to develop their own strategic deterrent capabilities.
Ultimately, despite Tillerson’s disclaimer, the objective must be the reunification of Korea under whatever system the peoples of the North and South freely choose for themselves. In the meantime, along with true denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, the rehumanization of the North Korean people is a moral imperative for America and the world.
Joseph Bosco served in the office of the secretary of defense, 2002-2010.