Yesterday I attended Secretary of State Tillerson’s speech at the Wilson Center, watching him from a balcony above, in the nearly packed atrium of the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C. Notables, including foreign ambassadors and U.S. senators, sat in the front row below. Behind them were rows of mostly young people, perhaps interns and junior agency staffers. It was a typical Washington event crowd.
Tillerson is stolid, white-haired, distinguished and speaks Texas-style slowly, in this case mostly from a text. He reassuringly looks like a chief diplomat, although he is of course a former corporate executive. Media reports focused on his comments about potential State Department budget cuts. But here were the more important comments, in which he extolled Teddy Roosevelt’s commitment to U.S. entrance into World War I:
What motivated Theodore Roosevelt’s rejection of neutrality and an ardent commitment to the defense of Europe?
We can see the answer in something Roosevelt told the U.S. Congress in 1904, and I quote, “A great free people owes it to itself and to all mankind not to sink into helplessness before the powers of evil.” Roosevelt knew that the defense of freedom demanded action from free nations, confident in their strength and protective of their sovereignty.
Roosevelt also knew that the United States and Europe, then as we are now, are bound by shared principles. Our nations live according to a self-evident truth on which Western civilization is built: Liberty, equality, and human dignity. These foundational principles are protected by the construct of our institutions dedicated to the rule of law, separation of powers, and representative government.
Our principles are also protected from external threats by our collective determination, action, and sacrifice in the face of security challenges. World War I was the first great test in the 20th century of whether the United States would pay the high cost of liberty. Theodore Roosevelt never participated in that war, but he did pay that high cost: His son Quentin, a fighter pilot, was killed in the skies over France.
In past decades, our way of life—and by extension, our core Western principles—have been tested by the totalitarian threat of Nazism, by Soviet power and its communist ideology, by ethnic and sectarian conflicts, and by internal political pressures. Together, the U.S. and Europe have passed these tests, but we know that the United States and Europe are again tested today and we will be tested again.
Under President Trump, the United States remains committed to our enduring relationship with Europe. Our security commitments to European allies are ironclad.
By extolling Roosevelt, Tillerson was reassuringly extolling America’s traditional Western alliance commitments, in continuity with U.S. foreign policy for most of one hundred years. Although touted by TR, it was Woodrow Wilson who actually set the trajectory, however initially stillborn by his collapsed health and treaty’s failure. That foreign policy was the child of America’s high-minded WASP establishment, informed by their commitment to American democracy, their cultural and historical attachment to Europe and the West, and a Protestant sense of missionary responsibility to offer the world material, spiritual, and moral uplift. The WASP establishment, usually based in the northeast, was typically Episcopalian, Presbyterian, or Congregationalist, the three most culturally prestigious Mainline Protestant denominations. Tillerson, although a Texan, is Congregationalist, a tradition dating to New England’s Puritans. Upon being offered the State Department job when he expected to retire after a career with ExxonMobil, Mrs. Tillerson reputedly told her husband, “I told you God’s not through with you.”
God’s plans for Tillerson at State Department have naturally included challenges, including reputedly sometimes tense relations with the president. He has reminded me from the start, amplified by watching him yesterday, of his predecessor William Rogers, who also lacked diplomatic experience and had difficult relations with President Nixon. Like Tillerson he was a tall, distinguished and confident WASP but who likewise did not come from money and worked his way to prominence. Rogers became a successful New York attorney who served Eisenhower as Attorney General. He was friends with Nixon since the 1940s, counseled him on the Hiss case, the Checkers Speech, and during Ike’s heart attack, when Nixon fled to Rogers’ home for privacy, wearing his friend’s pajamas and kept awake by the teenage son’s late-night ham radio chatter upstairs.
Although longtime friends, Nixon felt Rogers, as a comfortable New York establishment figure, condescended to him, not treating Nixon as an equal. He made Rogers secretary of state mostly as a figurehead because Nixon would make his own foreign policy, viewing domestic affairs almost as a distraction. Nixon of course was assisted by his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, a brilliant control freak who resented Rogers’ even minimal intrusions. Rogers, who did not share the scheming, Machiavellian perspective of Nixon and Kissinger, performed ceremonial functions with lawyerly reliability but lacked the sense of grand strategy that Nixon and Kissinger relished. Aides observed that Nixon seemed to enjoy marginalizing his haughty friend. Eventually, early in his second term, Nixon felt obliged to push out his old friend and replace him with a true grand strategist. Rogers later reflected: ”I never before had a friend who turned out to be not quite a friend.”
Unlike Nixon, the current president doesn’t seem to micromanage foreign policy nor have a Kissinger-like figure. But Tillerson like Rogers is confident and highly capable while lacking great expertise and deep insight into global statecraft. And like Rogers, who was Presbyterian, he has an innate Protestant rectitude that informs his sense of America’s dutiful vocation in the world premised on “a self-evident truth on which Western civilization is built: Liberty, equality, and human dignity.”