To the president and his advisers, human rights concerns can be an impediment to the flow of commerce between countries and a barrier to beneficial partnerships for the United States. In their view, trade equals jobs and prosperity, and concern about human rights too often backfires, getting in the way of efforts by the United States government to increase all three.
As they see it, the big mistake that President Barack Obama made was to publicly shame countries rather than to first build working relationships based on common interests. Only then, they say, can the president privately raise human rights concerns. Aides point to Mr. Trump’s success in persuading Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, to release an American aid worker.
Mr. Tillerson outlined the approach during a speech this month to State Department employees that distinguished between American values and American interests. “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 said.
“It doesn’t mean that we don’t advocate for and aspire to freedom, human dignity and the treatment of people the world over. We do,” he added. “But that doesn’t mean that’s the case in every situation.”
In Iran’s case, pushing on human rights is an easy decision, since the Trump administration sees little cost. Iran has emerged as one of the top two or three foreign adversaries of the new president, and he is not seeking economic or security ties with Tehran that could be jeopardized.
In Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, Mr. Trump sees an economic partner and the anchor of a Sunni Arab alliance to counter Iranian influence in the region. He announced $110 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia on…