When President-Elect Donald Trump ran for office, he promised to “Make America Great Again,” with little public deliberation about the meaning of greatness. Certainly, a nation’s greatness includes things like a thriving economy and a powerful military, but it must also include leadership within the international community.
The confirmation hearing of Mr. Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, provided initial insight into what vision of American “greatness” we can expect to be projected on the international stage. Despite his opening statements, which promised that in the challenging international environment, “American leadership must not only be renewed, it must be asserted,” Tillerson’s vision notably shrank from key moral issues. Whatever greatness may end up meaning, it is clear that at least to Mr. Tillerson, moral leadership should not be expected to play a significant role.
A striking theme in Mr. Tillerson’s testimony was the unwillingness, or inability, to stand on firm moral judgments. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) asked Tillerson whether he considered Russian President Vladimir Putin a war criminal based on his targeting of civilians in Syria, a thread that was picked up by other senators during the nine hour confirmation hearing. Tillerson answered evasively, saying “I would not use that term.” He cited a need for additional information despite well-documented attacks, particularly in Aleppo where indiscriminate weapons (including cluster bombs) were dropped in civilian areas. The end of the assault on Aleppo last December saw particularly fierce shelling and bombardment. The organization Human Rights Watch reports that 383 civilians died between November 15 and December 9, a figure which includes 59 children. The Syrian-Russian coalition was particularly criticized for targeting medical facilities and personnel to prevent those injured from receiving help. In addition, Tillerson was unwilling to characterize other clear human rights violators, such as the thousands of extrajudicial killings conducted in the Philippines under the direction of President Rodrigo Duterte during his war on drugs – and even perennial targets of U.S criticism such as Saudi Arabia – where it is well-known that, for example, women aren’t allowed to drive.
One cannot help but contrast the absence of Tillerson’s moral judgments with positions taken by the Obama administration on Syria in the UN Security Council, where the U.S. Ambassador to the UN did not vacillate when asking her Russian counterpart: “Are you incapable of shame?”
While Russian and Chinese votes (in support of Russian ally Bashar al-Assad) blocked the particular resolution in question, which would have led to a ceasefire in Aleppo, the instrumental role of President Obama’s government in referring Libya to the International Criminal Court also provides an example of leadership on issues of war crimes against civilians. Clearly, Mr. Tillerson is either unprepared or uninterested to manage similar moral purpose in American policy.
Tillerson’s testimony indicated a sharp departure from a long history of U.S. leadership on the protection of human rights abroad. When the United Nations was founded after WWII, it was First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who played an instrumental role in the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the cornerstone of the UN’s human rights regime. Indeed, many of the key provisions of this document come from our own legal and philosophical traditions, which evidently fall outside informing the meaning of “greatness” in the thinking taking shape in the incoming Trump Administration. When questioned about the role of human rights during his time at Exxon, Tillerson indicated a view of human rights that encompassed a narrow set of primarily business-related concerns, including the sanctity of contracts and the rule of law. When pressed by Senators Rubio and Chris Murphy (D-CT), Tillerson was unwilling – or perhaps unable – to name a single country that he would characterize as a violator of human rights, including states like Saudi Arabia with whom Exxon has had substantial business dealings.
Like the President-Elect, Mr. Tillerson would come to the White House from corporate America. Without a record of public service, only his record as an executive can provide us with any insight into his practices on human rights, but the picture painted by his dealings at Exxon do provide little reassurance that he would be a Secretary of State willing to take a firm stand on the promotion of human rights. One of the most infamous and disturbing instances concern ExxonMobil’s dealings in Indonesia’s Aceh province, where the company was dogged by allegations of torture and shootings carried out by Indonesian soldiers that Exxon employed.
The status of the U.S. as a great power depends on more than the size of its nuclear arsenal or the growth of its GDP. It also requires that the U.S. not retreat behind walls, whether these walls are literal or take the form of disengagement from the world and America’s moral responsibilities. In the absence of a world government, the task of leadership on key issues necessarily falls primarily to great powers. If the U.S. fails to exercise moral leadership, then it effectively relinquishes its claim as a great power within the international community and consigns itself to bring a historical relic of a once-great nation.