Articulation, at Last!

Rex Tillerson gave a speech yesterday. Setting aside the folksy language that has come to dominate US political discourse, it was the first articulate expression by the Trump administration of anything at all, and I commend it on those grounds alone.

That said, I can’t say I liked all of it. Tillerson set out what he has learnt in his first three months, and where he is taking the US in the world. The entire subjects of Europe and climate change were conspicuous by their absence. But, on the positive side, he’s the first Secretary of State to recognize in public how clapped-out our Cold War institutions are, and, perhaps unlike his boss, he does seem aware that foreign policy consists of many parts and that those parts interlock in strange, curious and often unpredictable ways.

The ethical core of the speech, according to The Guardian, was this: “In some circumstances, if you condition our national security efforts on someone adopting our values, we probably can’t achieve our national security goals” – i.e., sometimes you have to deal with bad guys to get good things done. The Guardian, however, read no further and condemned Tillerson without even pausing to mention that all governments and indeed most people sometimes turn to distasteful means to achieve worthy ends. This is a shame in part because this take renders the piece opinion rather than news so fuels the fake-news fire, but mainly because it misses the more revealing aspects of Tillerson’s approach.

A more telling quote is: “We must secure the nation. We must protect our people. We must protect our borders. We must protect our ability to be that voice of our values now and forevermore. And we can only do that with economic prosperity.” This is very clear: economic prosperity is good only in as much as it secures the nation. Or, to put it another way around, economic prosperity is subordinate to security: if there’s a choice between the economy and security, security will win (which perhaps explains why the economy prospered under Clinton and Obama, tanked under Bush and George W. and augers ill for Trump.)

So what does Tillerson mean by “secure”? He doesn’t spell it out but, as “security,” “foreign policy,” “defense” and similar terms are all politically correct terms for war, let’s turn to that.

Since Reagan, securing the nation and protecting the people has rested on the war on drugs. Since George W, it has further rested on the war on terrorism. Those wars are conducted because drugs and terrorism are bad. (This may seem obvious, but historically both of these “wars” were knee-jerk reactions to crises – crack cocaine and 9/11 respectively. Before the crack-cocaine crisis, drugs were merely one evil amongst many, and before 9/11, few Americans had a clue what terrorism was, and indeed many even funded it – think IRA).

But the point is not whether or not drugs and terrorism are bad – I’m simply saying that what is bad is disputable because it is to some extent fashionable – but that, far from divorcing policy from values, Tillerson’s stance is a reinforcement of policy by values. Securing the nation means ridding it of drugs and terror for the very reason that drugs and terror are bad.

If this is the case, what Tillerson means is not that exporting values per se is bad, but rather that “freedom, human dignity, the way people are treated” can be sacrificed, but that the wars on drugs and terror can’t. In other words, negative values (preventing bad things – security) are more important than positive values (engendering good things – liberty).

This is a depressing approach. If freedom and human dignity are to be switched off as soon as drugs or terror are involved, the reason for keeping the nation secure is already lost. And I’m not the first to observe that, in the tide of history, those who sacrifice liberty to gain security end up with neither.