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A Strategic Human Rights Agenda for the Tillerson State Department

A Strategic Human Rights Agenda for the Tillerson State Department

During his Senate confirmation hearings, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson rightly identified China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and militant Islamism as his priorities for the threats they pose to American interests. He also declared that “supporting human rights in our foreign policy is a key component of clarifying to a watching world what America stands for.” While Tillerson did not explicitly connect that general conviction with his specific statements on his priority countries, it was a promising insight. Bringing human rights back to the forefront of America’s diplomatic agenda offers a rare opportunity to regain the initiative and strategic advantage.

One regrettable legacy of the Obama era is the relative neglect of human rights and democracy promotion in American foreign policy. Arriving in office with a reflexive, ideological rejection of anything associated with its predecessors in the Bush Administration, the Obama team ostentatiously marginalized human rights in its efforts to pursue a “re-set” with Russia, an economic partnership with China, a rapprochement with Iran, and “strategic patience” with North Korea. Setting aside the relative failures of those policy initiatives on substantive grounds, the abandonment of human rights was a missed opportunity, especially as reformers and dissidents in nations such as Iran, Russia, China, Cuba, Egypt, Vietnam, and Saudi Arabia implored the Administration for support that either arrived too little, too late, or not at all. The Obama Administration did make some gestures towards recalibrating this in its second term, especially with the appointments of principled professionals like Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Rights, and Labor (DRL) Tom Malinowski and Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom David Saperstein. Yet even then, human rights never enjoyed meaningful support on the 7th floor of John Kerry’s State Department or at the White House, as the administration dogmatically pursued legacy items such as the Iran nuclear deal and the Cuba opening while giving human rights short shrift.

Secretary Tillerson already confronts an overwhelming in-box of international challenges and urgent management needs such as appointing his deputy, under, and assistant secretaries (the latter category made all the harder by the White House’s very regrettable rejection of Tillerson’s choice of Elliott Abrams for Deputy Secretary). As he ponders the vexing challenges posed by China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran, the understandable temptation will be to shunt human rights to the side as a tangential distraction from the priority issues of nuclear proliferation, territorial disputes, and economic differences.

This would be a missed opportunity. In addition to the moral imperatives of supporting human rights, doing so now also offers considerable strategic advantages. For one, bringing human rights back to the forefront will help the United States regain the diplomatic initiative. At this juncture Pyongyang, Moscow, Beijing, and Tehran all control the agendas of their troubled bilateral relations with the United States, as they push forward on their particular interests and force the United States to respond.

Tillerson first needs to strengthen America’s diplomatic hand and gain negotiating leverage before confronting issues such as Russian territorial aggression, China’s destabilizing land grabs in the South China Sea, Iran’s support for terrorism and ballistic missile program, and North Korea’s nuclear adventurism and missile testing. Bringing human rights and support for dissidents into the agenda will give the United States an asymmetric advantage, for these regimes fear their own populations and devote considerable resources to maintaining control. American efforts to highlight this repression and support freedom activists will bring aggravating internal and external pressure to bear on each government, and bolster America’s standing at the negotiating table.

I have elsewhere observed some of the similarities between former Secretary of State George Shultz and Tillerson, both in their respective backgrounds as CEOs of multinational companies and also the complex challenges each confronted in taking the helm at Foggy Bottom. Here Tillerson would do well to take a page out of the Shultz diplomatic playbook. With President Reagan’s full support, Shultz insisted on including human rights as one of the four core agenda items (along with regional issues, arms control, and bilateral issues) in all American negotiations with the Soviet Union. This irked the Soviets to no end, but America’s principled resolve in this respect played a key role in the Cold War’s peaceful dénouement.

Crafting an effective human rights policy is not easy, but the United States still has an abundant toolkit at Tillerson’s disposal. Effective measures can include meeting with dissidents, publicizing human rights abuses in speeches and public diplomacy efforts, restoring and increasing funding to freedom activists, providing overt and covert support for access to freedom of information, conducting training programs for democratic reformers, pursuing actions in multilateral fora, and targeted economic sanctions. Secretary Tillerson would need only to signal his support for a reinvigorated human rights policy, and creative policy ideas would flow his way from the NGOs, scholars, and the State Department’s own DRL staff.

Tillerson should pay special attention to the State Department’s process and structure on these matters. The DRL bureau will of necessity be at the forefront of any effective human rights strategy. Yet if those policies are to have any staying power, the support and ownership of the relevant regional bureaus will be essential. Rather than allowing them to drift into their customary bureaucratic roles of internal opposition to DRL initiatives, Secretary Tillerson should select regional Assistant Secretaries who will be committed to a prudent and effective human rights agenda, and instruct them to work closely with DRL in crafting strategies for countries within their area of responsibility. The ultimate effectiveness of any policy depends on the support of the relevant regional bureau and associated embassies and country teams.

Returning freedom promotion to a priority in American diplomacy would also help restore some of our nation’s damaged alliances. Some of our most reliable partners in human rights advocacy have been our closest allies on broader military and diplomatic policy. Japan has helped in pressing the North Korea regime; Australia assists with our human rights efforts on China, and the United Kingdom in supporting dissidents in Russia and Iran. Many of America’s alliances in recent years have suffered the dual blows of neglect from the Obama Administration and disdain from the Trump campaign. For good reason Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis have placed repairing America’s alliances at the top of their respective priority lists; partnering on shared values is a tangible way to start.

Photo credit: AlLEX WONG/Getty Images