Progress on ‘America First’ Foreign Policy

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U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson addresses State Department employees at the Department in Washington, D.C., on May 3, 2017.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson addresses State Department employees at the Department in Washington, D.C., on May 3, 2017.

Progress on ‘America First’ Foreign Policy

Today, U.S. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson spoke to State Department employees and the press at the Harry S. Truman building, headquarters of the Department of State, in Washington, D.C. In his remarks, Secretary Tillerson shared his perspective on how the Trump administration’s policies of “America first” fit into our foreign policy and foreign affairs.

Secretary Tillerson explained that, while U.S. values remain constant, there is a renewed emphasis on advancing our national security and economic interests. Secretary Tillerson said, “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. So it’s foreign policy projected with a strong ability to enforce the protection of our freedoms with a strong military. And all of you that have been at this a long time understand the value of speaking with a posture of strength – not a threatening posture, but a posture of strength.”

Secretary Tillerson also urged State Department employees to consider the difference between values and policies. He said, “…It’s important to also remember that guiding all of our foreign policy actions are our fundamental values: our values around freedom, human dignity, the way people are treated. Those are our values. Those are not our policies; they’re values.”  The Secretary continued, “Policies can change. They do change. They should change.  Policies change to adapt…our values never change.”

Secretary Tillerson then outlined several examples of U.S. engagement around the world. In the case of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (D.P.R.K. or North Korea), the Secretary cited the importance of engaging with our allies in Japan and the Republic of Korea (R.O.K. or South Korea) as well as others, including China and Russia. He noted the United States has made a strong call on countries all over the world to fully implement the UN Security Council resolutions regarding sanctions and for China to assert its influence on the DPRK. The Secretary said of North Korea, “We are clear – we’ve been clear to them this is not about regime change, this is not about regime collapse, this is not about an accelerated reunification of the peninsula, this is not about us looking for an excuse to come north of the 38th Parallel. So we’re trying to be very, very clear and resolute in our message to them that your future security and economic prosperity can only be achieved through you following your commitments to denuclearize.”

On China, Secretary Tillerson noted that our relationship has to be one based on mutual understanding around security and economic interests throughout northeast Asia and the Pacific. Secretary Tillerson outlined areas the United States has asked China to narrow bilateral dialogues and elevate the participants to decision-makers who report directly to President Xi. He noted the first meeting of the U.S.-China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue will be chaired by the U.S. Secretaries of State and Defense with their Chinese counterparts in Washington, D.C. this June. The Secretary also reiterated the need to work with Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) nations to re-solidify our leadership with ASEAN as well as strengthen our relations with Australia and New Zealand who serve as important partners on several counterterrorism fronts.

Secretary Tillerson also highlighted a number of efforts the United State’s has underway to stabilize our relationship with Russia. Secretary Tillerson listed his upcoming bilateral meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov next week on the margins of the Arctic Council as one example. Secretary Tillerson acknowledged the United States would have to continue engaging Russia to build trust within the bilateral relationship and address issues ranging from nuclear arms agreements to Ukraine.

Secretary Tillerson then addressed the Middle East, particularly the campaign to defeat ISIS and address the instability that ISIS has created in Syria and Iraq. He acknowledged the “D-ISIS” and counterterrorism efforts also impact the larger Middle East, North Africa, parts of Africa, and Central Asia. He noted the progress shown at the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS ministerial meeting held at the State Department earlier this year. Secretary Tillerson said, “…We are defeating ISIS in their caliphate in Syria and Iraq, but we know that ISIS exists more broadly than that. And so, as we said in that coalition effort, we’ve got to move beyond the battlefield, we’ve got to move into the cyberspace, we’ve got to move into the social communications space, and get inside of the messaging that allows them to recruit people around the world to their terrorism efforts.”

Secretary Tillerson warned we cannot allow Africa to become “the next breeding ground for a re-emergence of a caliphate for ISIS” nor can we allow terrorist networks that operate in Africa to continue unabated. The Secretary also said that Africa is a continent of enormous opportunity that will continue to receive U.S. support to stabilize governments and for health initiatives as well as continued consideration for potential economic and trade opportunities.

Finally, Secretary Tillerson recognized the importance of ongoing efforts of the United States to engage our neighbors in Canada and Mexico as well as countries within the Western Hemisphere. Secretary Tillerson noted several initiatives are underway in partnership with the Department of Homeland Security to work with the Latin American countries on economic development and security investments. Secretary Tillerson stated that a Western Hemisphere strategy must consider South America in its entirety and in its relationship to Central America as well as Cuba and the rest of the Caribbean.

Secretary Tillerson closed his remarks by thanking State Department employees for their efforts during the transition of the past three months, especially those who have helped lead the Department in acting roles, including acting Deputy Secretary Tom Shannon. Secretary Tillerson then discussed efforts to reshape how the State Department delivers on its mission in the post-Cold War era. When reviewing the way State Department performs its work, the Secretary asked employees for a willingness “to approach this effort that we’re going to undertake with no constraints to your thinking.” Secretary Tillerson reminded employees, “We are part of a living history and we’re going to get to carve our little piece of it, our increment, in that clock of time. We’re going to carve our piece into that history.”

The Secretary concluded by saying, “The men and women of the State Department inspire me, my colleagues – their professionalism, their commitment, their patriotism. And I said, then our partners over at the Department of Defense, the men and women in uniform, because it’s really the State Department and the Defense Department that deliver our national security.”

Editor's Note: This entry is also published on Medium.com/StateDept.

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Remarks: Secretary Tillerson to U.S. Department of State Employees