Tillerson: At times US needs to separate values from foreign policies

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Story highlights

  • Tillerson laid out his vision of what 'America First' means for foreign policy
  • The Trump administration wants to cut the State Department by 26%

Washington (CNN)US foreign policy should sometimes separate values such as freedom, human dignity and "the way people are treated" from policies it pursues around the world, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told his agency Wednesday.

Tillerson laid out his vision of how President Donald Trump's 'America First' policy meshes with foreign policy, making clear that it still reflected traditional priorities of national security and economic prosperity.
"It's America First for national security and economic prosperity and that doesn't mean that comes at the expense of others," Tillerson said, in his second address to department staff. "Our partnerships and alliances are critical to our success in both those areas."
Tillerson, speaking in an auditorium named for Dean Acheson, the iconic former secretary of state who is widely credited with shaping the US-led international order after World War II, said that order has changed and the US strategic posture has to change, too.
He described the mission for the State Department as the administration plans to cut the budget for State and the Agency for International Development by as much as 30%. He said that with the Cold War over, his agency, along with international institutions like the UN, had failed to adapt.
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"We just kind of lost track of how we were doing, and I think things have gotten out of balance," Tillerson said.
US foreign policy, Tillerson said, is guided by fundamental values, but he cautioned: "If we condition too heavily that others must adopt this value that we've come to over a long history of our own, it really creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests." 
He added that "in some circumstances, we should and do condition our policy engagements on people adopting certain actions as to how they treat people. ... But that doesn't mean that's the case in every situation." 
The comments on values, said former Undersecretary of State Anthony Blinken, were "totally strange -- our values need to inform and infuse our policy."
Blinken, a CNN contributor, said "most of the time ideals and interests are one and same, though some tactical trimming of the sails may also be necessary." He suggested that Tillerson's comments "may reflect distrust of career folks. Maybe he thinks they have values at odds with the administration's policies, whatever they are."
All administrations struggle to balance values and interests, few are so blunt about the need to make trade-offs.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson talks with Russian Foreign Minister (unseen) during their meeting in Moscow on April 12, 2017.  
Tillerson meets Lavrov as Washington confronts Moscow about its support for the Syrian regime. / AFP PHOTO / Alexander NEMENOV        (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson talks with Russian Foreign Minister (unseen) during their meeting in Moscow on April 12, 2017.  
Tillerson meets Lavrov as Washington confronts Moscow about its support for the Syrian regime. / AFP PHOTO / Alexander NEMENOV        (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)

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North Korea was the first policy area the administration had to tackle, he said. "President Obama told President Trump this is going to be your greatest challenge that you're going to have to manage, and he was right," Tillerson said.
Key to that effort is a pressure campaign to have China use its influence to get Pyongyang to rein in its nuclear program, Tillerson said.
The US is "leaning hard into China to test their willingness to use their influence," he said. "It's a pressure campaign that has a knob on it, I'd say we're at dial seven or six right now."
Relations with Russia are a particular flashpoint. Tillerson said ties are at the lowest they've been since the Cold War, and that, when he said so at an April meeting with President Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader "did not disagree, he shrugged his shoulders, and my comment to him is, it's spiraling down" and can't be allowed to get worse.
Tillerson said there are a number of efforts underway to stabilize the relationship, including a working group lead by Acting Under Secretary Tom Shannon to "see if we can address some of the things that are irritating the relationship."
He and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will meet next week on the margins of a meeting of the Arctic Council in Alaska. There, they will "continue to see if we can work together on the first big area of cooperation which is Syria. I don't want to say we're off to a great start on this because it's very early stages and it's hard to say where it will go," Tillerson said.
The top US diplomat's remarks to the State Department come as Tillerson has asked his staff for their input as he prepares to slash the department's staff and budget.
Many staff had hoped the secretary would address the cuts directly and at length. Tillerson left the topic to the end of this remarks.
"I know change like this is really stressful for a lot of peple," Tillerson said. "There's nothing easy about it, and I don't want to diminish the challenges in any way it presents to individuals, it presents to families, it presents to organizations. All I can offer you on the other side of that equation is an opportunity to shape the future way we deliver on mission."
The Trump administration plans to cut 2,300 jobs at the State Department as it whittles the agency's budget down to just over $50 billion. The plans will ultimately have to be approved by Congress, which controls the purse strings, and several members on both sides of the aisle have been critical of the reductions.