State Department nominee vows to promote human rights

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Story highlights

  • John Sullivan vowed to make the State Department "the pre-eminent force to protect American values"
  • Sullivan's uncle was the last US ambassador to Iran before diplomatic relations were halted

Washington (CNN)The nominee to be Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's top deputy at the State Department committed to advocate for human rights Tuesday amid criticism from Democrats and Republicans that the Trump administration is taking an overly transactional approach to foreign policy.

"I am committed to making the State Department the pre-eminent force to protect American values and promote American values in the world," John Sullivan told the congressional committee considering his nomination.
Sullivan's remarks come less than a week after Tillerson told State Department staff the US must sometimes be willing to separate values from policies, explaining, "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."
Many policymakers criticized that vision as a signal the administration is willing to turn a blind eye to some human rights violations in exchange for diplomatic concessions by authoritarian leaders.
"With those words, Secretary Tillerson sent a message to oppressed people everywhere: Don't look to the United States for hope," Republican Sen. John McCain wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times on Monday.
"To view foreign policy as simply transactional is more dangerous than its proponents realize," he went on to say. "Depriving the oppressed of a beacon of hope could lose us the world we have built and thrived in."
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Sullivan's nomination was generally well received by Senate foreign relations committee members, who questioned him for just under an hour and a half.
If confirmed, Sullivan's presence at the State Department would provide additional leadership within an agency that remains understaffed at the senior levels.
Sullivan currently works as a partner in the law firm Mayer Brown, advising clients on issues related to national security and foreign policy.
His profile on the firm's website says his responsibilities include advising corporate clients "on US sanctions and export controls, international trade disputes and regulation, and foreign investment in the United States, the Middle East, Russia, and other countries."
His previous government experience includes a stint as deputy secretary of commerce under George W. Bush's administration.
At his hearing Tuesday, Sullivan noted his respect for US diplomats, drawing on the dramatic experiences of his paternal uncle, William Sullivan, who served as the last US ambassador to Iran before diplomatic relations were halted in 1979.
William Sullivan was recalled from the post just months before the Iran hostage crisis, and was briefly taken captive himself in a separate incident earlier that year.