America’s Values Should Guide its Foreign Policy

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Haiti, 2014 © USAID

May 23, 2017 11:30 EDT

Without the compass of values to guide foreign policy, we descend to profit and power and sacrifice principle and people.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson addressed his State Department employees in Washington earlier this month. It was his first significant encounter with his charges since assuming his position shortly after President Trump’s inauguration.

Tillerson touched on many issues in his remarks. Perhaps most noteworthy were his statements on the meaning of this administration’s America First policy and the role of values and interests in foreign policy making. As I wrote previously, his remarks were emphatically discouraging and demoralizing for State Department personnel as well as for billions of people around the world. More critically for America’s interests, they ignore America’s extraordinarily unique role in the world.

Keeping our values as an integral part of US foreign policy serves more than a comforting remnant of hope for millions living under oppression abroad. Ignored in Tillerson’s remarks was the vital role that values play in guiding US foreign policy in service of our interests.

Tillerson touched on some of those values Americans cherish, e.g., “freedom, human dignity, and the treatment of others.” He might also have mentioned justice, equality, opportunity and others. Sadly, the new American Secretary of State went on to speak of these values as “creating obstacles,” or the country having gotten “off track,” or things having become “out of balance.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

America’s values have guided it in supporting democratic movements and human rights organizations abroad, securing passage in the UN of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, coming to the aid of victims of HIV Aids, supporting dissident journalists and human rights advocates abroad, defending the rights of racial, ethnic and religious minorities as well as LGBT people, and combating all aspects of extremism and terrorism.

Certainly, few Americans, and even fewer of America’s friends around the world, need reminding that America’s commitment to its values has often been honored in the breach. Examples include the CIA-inspired, White House-approved coup of a democratically elected prime minister in Iran in 1953; the government-approved plan to supply Iraqi President Saddam Hussein with chemical weapons know-how and the subsequent US government effort to block Iran’s appeal to the UN Security Council when Iraq deployed chemical weapons against Iranian troops during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war; the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages deal; the failure to seriously push for human rights in the Middle East until the early 2000s; and even the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

These examples attest to the American government’s ability to muddle its values with its interests. Values help keep in check some of America’s all-to-human ambitions.

When we depart from them, we inevitably harm our interests. In each of the aforementioned cases, near-term interests were allowed to trump both our values and ultimately our longer-term interests. The longer-term consequences of those ill-considered decisions militated against our interests, in Nicaragua, in Iran, in Iraq, in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world.

Values act as a compass in guiding us on policy. Without that compass, we descend to profit and power and sacrifice principle and people.

One of the clearest examples of America’s following its motivating principles as opposed to a profit motive is in the area of US businesses’ behavior and activities abroad. Under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977, American companies are prohibited from using bribery of foreign officials to secure overseas contracts. The law also requires US firms to follow specific guidelines on transparency in reporting accounting information from their overseas operations. While it is probably true that the law has probably led to US companies losing some overseas deals, it demonstrates that America practices what it preaches when it comes to eliminating corruption.

It is still early in Tillerson’s tenure at the Department of State and in the current US administration. As he learns and experiences the responsibilities of his office, Americans and millions around the world should hope that the secretary comes around to respecting and embracing America’s values as he shapes policies and advances America’s interests.

America became a great nation for many reasons, but principal among them has been our values. We are great because of them, not in spite of them. If we are to keep America first and remain as great as this administration asserts, we will need to continue to act on those values.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: USAID

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