The State Department has an official mission statement. It reads:
... to shape and sustain a peaceful, prosperous, just, and democratic world and foster conditions for stability and progress for the benefit of the American people and people everywhere. This mission is shared with the USAID, ensuring we have a common path forward in partnership as we invest in the shared security and prosperity that will ultimately better prepare us for the challenges of tomorrow.
That may soon change. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is now pushing for a new statement that the department's mission is to "lead America's foreign policy through global advocacy, action, and assistance to shape a safer, more prosperous world." Accompanying this is a "statement of purpose" that reads, "We promote the security, prosperity, and interests of the American people globally."
Some old hands at Foggy Bottom are in an uproar. They believe the new statement would mean the abandonment of American values.
They are wrong.
It is true that American foreign policy must be motivated by certain ideals, but the past 15 years have shown that having this zeal written, as it were, into the department's DNA does not make for effective foreign policy.
The proof is rendered by two debacles. One was President George W. Bush's attempt to build Iraq into a western-style democracy, and the other was President Barack Obama's decision to topple Libyan dictator, Moammar Gadhafi. In both cases, the pursuit of America's interests was subordinated to ideology. In both cases, against available evidence, Bush and Obama believed the love of freedom would somehow create stability. And in both cases, American interests suffered. They are suffering still from these two egregious errors of judgment.
Tillerson is right to reorient foreign policy toward constructive results. His approach isn't just sensible, it's moral. Seeking a "safer, more prosperous world" and "the interests of the American people" does not mean that the nation and its government in Washington will stop caring about human freedom or other countries. But the new mission articulates the defining proposition that the federal government exists to serve the people of this country, not the people of other countries.
This should mean no regime change unless changing a regime is important to American security, and no intervening in foreign civil wars. It must mean recognizing that the unpredictability of global politics demands caution before action. And it means recognizing that the human and financial costs of idealist miscalculation can be vast.
Most importantly, it means that Washington will adopt results-orientated policies likely to serve American interests. Tillerson's mission statement does not, as his critics suggest, represent isolationism. Treaties, diplomacy, and multilateralism are often crucial for advancing national interests. Tillerson's new mission represents a shift not to isolationism but intelligent statecraft, and away from ideologies (e.g. Bush's democracy gospel, then Samantha Power's unmoored humanitarian interventionism).
Still, Tillerson has a fight on his hands. Career civil servants at State are furious over his proposal. They already despised him for reforms to reduce their bureaucracy, inefficiency, and Washington-heavy structure. Now, they believe, their boss is attacking their better knowledge. Most of them are academic types with liberal political leanings, and they despise the notion of "America First," which they think is a matter of poor taste as much as anything else. They see it as their right and mission to pursue multilateral unity. Their policy, put generously, is one of enlightenment, whereas Tillerson is one of enlightened national interest.
The missionaries of democracy and the global thinking humanitarian interventionists at Foggy Bottom should feel free to carry out their ideological crusades in their free time. If that isn't enough, they should pursue it in one of the many nonprofit organizations set up for that purpose. But that isn't the purpose of the Department of State. It and its employees have a more important job, which is to advance the interests of America's 320 million people.
Tillerson's name probably comes from his family's distant origins of tilling the soil. But we prefer to think of it as derived from a hereditary ability at the helm of a ship. Tillerson at the tiller of the ship of State is steering a new path. And it's a better one than before.