He praised the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, noting the program’s measurable impacts, while calling it “remarkable,” “extraordinary” and “a model” and “a marvelous way to send the message of the compassion of the American people.” He commended the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for its response to the 2014-2015 Ebola crisis. He spoke approvingly of the “soft diplomacy” of USAID’s assistance and support towards development and disaster relief.
But a day-long Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the nomination of Rex Tillerson to be the next U.S. Secretary of State revealed little that wasn’t already known of the former ExxonMobil CEO’s stances on U.S. global health leadership and responses, including whether current efforts would be maintained or expanded under his leadership.
In a day dominated by discussion of revelations, proposed policies, and business ties to Russia, as well as by the threats posed by terrorism, climate change and human rights abuses, talk of global health support, security, diplomacy and humanitarian responses was scarce and skimmed the surface. While the Department of State oversees the Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator and Global Health Diplomacy, Mr. Tillerson’s opening statement did not touch on those topics, even when extolling the value of U.S. “moral leadership,” although PEPFAR is frequently cited by policymakers on both sides of the aisle as an example of that leadership.
Questioned by Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga) on the funding allocated to CDC to lead infectious disease responses around the world as well as at home, Mr. Tillerson said he would have to weigh priorities. He gave a similar answer to Sen. Jeanne Shaheen’s question on funding for reproductive health services. When discussing the merits of PEPFAR, he referred to “threats that are in other parts of the world that by and large we’re not threatened by a lot of this here in this country,” that included tuberculosis, “well under control,” — a view not shared by the CDC. Still, that these topics were raised — by Sen. Coons, Sen. Markey, Sen. Flake, and Sen. Barrasso, as well — and addressed is another indication that, if confirmed, Mr. Tillerson will assume a role in which the connections between global and domestic health, and between disease threats and security threats have taken a higher profile.