Secretary Tillerson: Three Things to Show Leadership on Universal Values

By Erika Asgeirsson

Rex Tillerson will almost certainly be the next Secretary of State. During his confirmation hearing, he was grilled on Russia: on sanctions, its interference in the U.S. election, its war crimes in Syria, and aggression in Ukraine. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee was concerned about the positions he’d take as the nation’s lead diplomat when it comes to Russia’s violations of international law. As Tillerson prepares to take on this role, his should reflect a values-based foreign policy centered on universal values and human dignity.

Here are three steps Secretary Tillerson should take to live up to his pledge that “our values are our interests.”

Maintain sanctions against Russia. During his confirmation hearing, Tillerson repeatedly insisted that sanctions were a “powerful” tool. However, for them to remain powerful, they must not be bargained away. Russia violated international law when it invaded Crimea, and sanctions cannot be lifted until Russia leaves Crimea and complies with the Minsk agreements. The sanctions instituted in 2014 in response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, put in place by executive order, are at risk because they do not require Congressional action to repeal. (A bipartisan group of senators, including Cardin, McCain, Menendez, Graham, Shaheen, Rubio, Klobuchar, Sasse, Durbin, and Portman introduced a bill to codify existing sanctions and require congressional approval to repeal them.)

Tillerson repeatedly said he would maintain the “status quo” until he got more information and went through a process of inter-agency consultation to make a decision. However, his main concern with sanctions seemed to be their impact on business, rather than their potential to demonstrate American leadership on democratic values and human rights, as Senator Menendez emphasized during the hearing. In addition, it was clear Tillerson believed that the President alone, not Congress, should have wide discretion in imposing and removing sanctions. While his promise to enforce the Magnitsky sanctions–targeted sanctions against individuals implicated in serious violations of human rights—is reassuring, his general disregard of Congressional authority to impose sanctions is concerning.

In his first days as Secretary of State, Tillerson should reiterate his support for sanctions against Russia and his intent to keep them in place not just until he decides otherwise, but until Russia complies with its terms. By doing so, he will re-affirm that American foreign policy is based on central tenets of human rights, rule of law, and democracy—not the interests of private companies.

Support democratic development in Ukraine. As a key adviser to the President, Tillerson has an opportunity to shape policy on support to Ukraine as it continues to combat corruption, develop democratic institutions, and shore up protections for human rights. Tillerson should stand behind Ukraine’s sovereignty and maintain U.S. support for organizations like the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, anti-xenophobia groups, and independent journalism. If the United States steps back from its role as a beacon of democracy for Ukraine, other nations—with different values—will step forward.

Prioritize civilian protection in Syria. On Syria, Tillerson faces one of his most challenging immediate tests. The six-year civil war in Syria has created the largest humanitarian crisis in the world with almost half a million people killed and more than half of Syria’s prewar population of 23 million displaced from their homes. The conflict has harmed U.S. interests in many ways. Tillerson should make it the priority of the United States to protect the civilian population by negotiating an enduring cessation of hostilities agreement and securing the continuous and unhindered delivery of humanitarian and medical aid to all Syrian territories—which Russia has to date repeatedly obstructed.  Without an end to the indiscriminate targeting of civilians, Tillerson’s stated priority of defeating ISIS will prove elusive.

The new administration faces human rights crises in many parts of the world. How it responds to Russia’s multi-pronged assault on the international liberal order will set a tone for how it deals with the many challenges it will confront and provide an early indication of what the Trump Administration’s foreign policy stands for: universal values and international law, or something else.


Published on January 24, 2017


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