When Rex Tillerson goes before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday, he should be given the professional respect to which anyone of his achievement is entitled. But before he is confirmed, he owes the American people some clear answers.
With the title of America’s top diplomat comes responsibility for advancing a broad array of national interests. These include energy security, where Tillerson’s history of back-room deals for the benefit of Exxon shareholders may at least hold the appearance of some use.
But that history and style of operation raise questions, too, of Tillerson’s attachment to broader national interests and, indeed, to the American people. We want to see evidence of his past commitment to fighting the corruption that erodes the future of so many countries and their populations. We want to know what effort he made to ensuring that Exxon’s extraction of natural resources has benefited not only oligarchs and shareholder profits, but to the needs of countries where Exxon has engaged. And we want to understand how he will ensure that his 40-year history in the oil industry will not conflict with the interests of the American people through the full disclosure and explanation of his current and future financial relationship to this industry.
These questions go to the heart of Tillerson’s ethical moorings – important in turn to the respect he must command if he is to advance effectively American interests as Secretary of State. They also target the breadth of interests he must steer, if confirmed.
As a Washington-based advocacy organization that fights for fundamental rights and economic opportunities for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals around the world, we are particularly interested in learning how he will promote America’s longstanding interests in supporting democratic societies and vibrant economies that respect and empower minority citizens. Countries that respect the rights of minorities understand their commitment to democracy and make strong diplomatic and economic partners; countries that persecute their minorities do not make stable allies. Unfortunately, LGBTI individuals and religious minorities are among the most violently persecuted minorities in most countries. And some of the worst examples of such persecution, and indeed overtly hostile leadership, occur in countries that happen to be led by some of the world’s worst oligarchs and dictators, including Russia.
U.S. foreign policy has clear reason to promote sound economic development and fully inclusive prosperity, both of which reinforce long-term stability in the foreign partnerships we seek to build. Our country traditionally stands against human rights abuse for this and broader ethical reasons. We advocate for vibrant civil societies that enjoy fundamental freedoms, rights and protections rooted in the rule of law – rights and protections that shouldn’t be limited by national borders, of course, but that also strengthen business and cultural and social ties. We know that sound and inclusive global health policies maximize our country’s generous investments in global health and positively impact, too, the health interests of the American people. And all of these interests are tied intrinsically to success in both eroding the appeal of terrorism and reducing the risk of war.
If confirmed, Tillerson will be charged with building bilateral and multilateral commitment to these and other goals – often against the will and narrow interests of the many government leaders and other officials he has cultivated as CEO. That task is far more challenging, and requires far greater finesse, than does negotiating the price and terms for a commodity that a country’s oligarchs seek to sell.
As a measure of his commitment to human rights and democracy, we encourage discussion of whether Tillerson is prepared to push for full citizenship rights for disfavored LGBTI minority communities in many of the countries around the world where he led Exxon to make significant investments. We deserve to understand how he will prioritize these and other human rights concerns, and there is no better way to judge the balance he will take than to weigh his support for some of the most commonly persecuted minority communities around the world.
We urge that Tillerson speak clearly to these points, and to the leadership he would provide to advancing these paramount interests. We would far rather see policy guided by seasoned career diplomats for a time, than to leave these questions unanswered. A speedy confirmation might be in the narrow partisan interests of the President-elect – but not in the interests of our country.