A tutorial from policy aide Brian Hook followed the secretary of state's controversial remarks about balancing U.S. values and interests.
t is not clear whether Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ever read the memo, which was categorized as "sensitive but unclassified." |
Three months into his tenure as secretary of state, Rex Tillerson alarmed veteran diplomats with remarks that sounded like a potential shift in American foreign policy: The U.S., he said, should be careful not to let values like human rights create "obstacles" to the pursuit of its interests.
The comment, at a gathering of State Department employees, provoked an outcry among former U.S. officials and human rights activists who feared America was abandoning a vital mission. Two weeks later, a top Tillerson adviser wrote up a short tutorial, in the form of a confidential memo to his boss, recapping “the debate over how far to emphasize human rights, democracy promotion, and liberal values in American foreign policy.”
The May 17 memo reads like a crash course for a businessman-turned-diplomat, and its conclusion offers a starkly realist vision: that the U.S. should use human rights as a club against its adversaries, like Iran, China and North Korea, while giving a pass to repressive allies like the Philippines, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
“Allies should be treated differently—and better—than adversaries. Otherwise, we end up with more adversaries, and fewer allies,” argued the memo, written by Tillerson’s influential policy aide, Brian Hook.
It is unclear what prompted Hook to author the memo, and whether he did so at Tillerson’s request amid a furor in foreign policy circles about Tillerson’s May 3 remarks, in which he said that “it’s really important that all of us understand the difference between policy and values” like “freedom, human dignity and the way people are treated.”
But the memo, a photo of which was shown to POLITICO, suggests that Tillerson, a former CEO of ExxonMobil, was still on a steep learning curve when it comes to foreign affairs. It also seems to foreshadow President Donald Trump's approach to the complex politics of human rights overseas.
During his May visit to Saudi Arabia, and while hosting the leaders of Egypt and Turkey at the White House, Trump did not publicly press the leaders of those countries on their authoritarian policies. But during an address to South Korea’s Parliament in November, Trump spoke at striking length about the brutality of North Korea’s regime. Trump and Tillerson have also repeatedly assailed Iran’s human rights record.
Hook’s memo “tells Tillerson that we should do exactly what Russian and Chinese propaganda says we do—use human rights as a weapon to beat up our adversaries while letting ourselves and our allies off the hook,” said Tom Malinowski, who served as an assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor in the administration of former President Barack Obama.
“He utterly misses the elemental fact that America’s moral authority is one of our main advantages in the world, and that it would disappear if we apply it as selectively as he advises,” Malinowski added.
On Monday, Trump unveiled a new National Security Strategy document that uses the phrase “human rights” just once. (Obama’s last plan, in 2015, mentioned the phrase 16 times.) Trump’s strategy at one point states, “We are not going to impose our values on others,” but later includes a section on how the administration will “Champion American Values.”
The memo also offers a glimpse into how Tillerson's secretive inner circle shapes foreign policy, leaving many veteran State Department officials feeling sidelined.
Hook heads what’s known as the Policy Planning Staff at the State Department. Policy Planning traditionally has served as an internal think tank doing mid- to long-term strategizing, but under Tillerson it is more involved in day-to-day work that would otherwise be the purview of the department’s many bureaus.
“The classic dilemma of balancing ideals and interests is with regard to America’s allies. In relation to our competitors, there is far less of a dilemma. We do not look to bolster America’s adversaries overseas; we look to pressure, compete with, and outmaneuver them,” Hook wrote.
"For this reason," Hook continues, "we should consider human rights as an important issue in regard to U.S. relations with China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran. And this is not only because of moral concern for practices inside those countries. It is also because pressing those regimes on human rights is one way to impose costs, apply counter-pressure, and regain the initiative from them strategically."
It is not clear whether Tillerson ever read the memo, which was categorized as "sensitive but unclassified.” Hook did not answer multiple requests for comment. The memo was shown to POLITICO on the condition that only its text be reprinted.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert would not confirm or deny the veracity of the memo. "We can’t comment on alleged internal documents but, as a general matter, human rights remains an integral part of our values that we consistently address with other nations," she wrote in an email.
Other State Department sources, although not in a position to confirm the authenticity of the memo, said it appeared to follow standard formatting used for such papers.
Long a familiar face in conservative foreign policy circles, Hook held several positions under President George W. Bush, including assistant secretary of state for international organizations.
Hook's decision to join the Trump administration surprised some in Washington because so many other mainstream conservative foreign policy experts publicly distanced themselves from Trump during the 2016 presidential race. His disproportionate influence at the State Department has unnerved some lawmakers who note that he never had to endure the confirmation process.
Hook’s three-page memo lays out the historical underpinnings of the two main U.S. foreign policy schools on human rights, which Hook divides into "realism" and "liberal/idealist/Wilsonian."
George W. Bush, like fellow presidents Bill Clinton and Obama, "worked on relatively optimistic assumptions regarding the possibilities for positive social change overseas, as nudged forward by American power and diplomacy," Hook states. "No doubt this optimism was well-intentioned.
"But in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan, slow economic recovery, the rise of China, and the failed Arab Spring, there is understandably less optimism today that the world can be easily democratized or reshaped simply by expressing American liberal values, or by badgering American allies."
Hook approvingly writes that Ronald Reagan’s "first instinct was always to back allies against adversaries, even in controversial cases, including through his second term." But Jimmy Carter, Hook states, damaged American interests because he "badgered" and undermined U.S. allies like the shah of Iran.
Today, "in the case of US allies such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Philippines, the [Trump] Administration is fully justified in emphasizing good relations for a variety of important reasons, including counter-terrorism, and in honestly facing up to the difficult tradeoffs with regard to human rights," Hook writes. "It is not as though human rights practices will be improved if anti-American radicals take power in those countries."
Malinowski took issue with some of Hook’s historical lessons. Anti-Americanism in Iran, he argued, was festering before Carter arrived on the scene—thanks in part to the CIA’s role in overthrowing an elected Iranian government in 1953 and America’s longstanding support for the country's repressive monarch.
Malinowski also dismissed Hook's claim that Reagan's policy of "constructive engagement" with South Africa's apartheid regime worked "in the long run," noting that it is generally accepted that U.S. sanctions were more effective in changing that government’s behavior. Reagan largely resisted lawmakers' demands to impose sanctions on South Africa over its segregation policies, even vetoing legislation later overridden by Congress.
A former senior official in the Bush administration, speaking on condition of anonymity, also expressed disappointment in the memo.
"The memo forgets about people entirely. It doesn’t even recognize the existence of cases where criticizing a 'friendly' regime will win the United States a lot of support at the street level," the former official said. "To give an example, the United States didn’t raise human rights issues with the Greek military junta in the 1970s because it was 'pro-American.' The result of this abandonment of the people of Greece was long-term anti-Americanism there."
Tillerson made his comments about balancing values and interests during his first town hall with State Department employees. He tried to be nuanced and cautious with his remarks, emphasizing that American values remain constant, even as policies change over time.
"For me, it’s one of the most difficult areas as I’ve thought about how to formulate policy to advance all of these things simultaneously. It’s a real challenge," he told the audience.
In more recent months, Tillerson earned applause from some in the human rights community for visiting Myanmar and later declaring that the Asian country was carrying out "ethnic cleansing" against its Rohingya Muslim minority.
Still, Tillerson's decoupling of American values and American interests has been cited frequently by critics in the months since his May town hall appearance.
The criticism comes as morale in the State Department has plummetedover proposed staff and budget cuts and amid mounting frustration that many career civil and foreign service employees are being shut out of the policy-making process.
One U.S. diplomat's fiery resignation letter, first reported by Foreign Policy, cited Tillerson's May 3 comments as one of the reasons she felt compelled to quit.