Democracy promotion may no longer be a US objective under Trump administration
Washington - After he was sworn in as secretary of state, Rex Tillerson pledged a major management overhaul of the US State Department. Combined with US President Donald Trump’s proposal to reduce the department’s funding by more than 30%, this seemed to signal that the new administration was not deeply committed to diplomacy.
Rumours have since swirled that Tillerson planned to reduce his department’s staff by more than 2,000 and do away with several bureaus and departments. On August 8, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan conducted a meeting and teleconference for all State Department employees to ease their concerns. Sullivan, however, did not deny that changes were coming.
One of those changes could bring about a major shift in US foreign policy priorities. On August 1, the Washington Post obtained an internal State Department e-mail that discussed a new “mission statement” for the department. The new wording was essentially identical to the department’s existing mission statement except for one detail: In describing the objectives of US foreign policy and the State Department’s work, it made no reference to the promotion of democracy.
Elliott Abrams, who served under former President George W. Bush as deputy national security adviser, told the Post: “We used to want a just and democratic world and now apparently we don’t.”
Tom Malinowski, who served as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labour during the Obama administration, said: “It’s a worldview similar to that of Putin, who also thinks that great powers should focus exclusively on self-protection and enrichment, rather than promoting democracy.”
Washington-based NGOs that support democracy promotion, such as the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), raised alarms about the reported change. POMED Executive Director Stephen McInerney issued a statement saying: “Changing policy in that way would not only be antithetical to basic American ideals but would also benefit autocratic regimes and jeopardise US security… we urge [the State Department] to retain and reaffirm US commitments to justice and democracy.”
The simplest explanation for why Tillerson would propose removing of democracy as an objective of US foreign policy is that it reflects the Trump administration’s overall “America first” agenda and, more specifically, the agenda of the administration’s ideological guru, White House adviser Stephen Bannon. He was the driving force behind Trump’s proposed “travel ban” that targeted Muslims and Arabs and described French politician Marion Maréchal-Le Pen as “the new rising star.”
The simplest explanation, however, is not always the most thorough. If indeed the State Department is preparing to discard democracy promotion as one of its missions, one can point to several possible explanations. Foremost among them is that in recent years the policy of democracy promotion led to some of the worst excesses in US foreign policy history.
Abrams, who as noted above is critical of Tillerson’s proposed change, was one of the loudest advocates for the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, along with other prominent democracy promoters in the Bush administration. Their democracy-at-the-point-of-a-gun policy proved disastrous on multiple levels: It depleted the US Treasury, shattered Iraq, encouraged terrorism and empowered Iran. About the only thing it did not accomplish was the spread of democracy.
In 2008, then-Senator Barack Obama upset then-Senator Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in large part because he constantly reminded voters that Clinton had supported the Iraq war. As president, Obama spoke glowingly of democracy and civil liberties — witness his Cairo speech in 2009 — but was loath to commit significant US resources to the effort.
As a result, many democracy advocates were furious when Obama sat out Iran’s 2009 Green Revolution, was slow to pressure Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak to step down and took a hands-off approach in Syria to what began as an anti-authoritarianism, pro-democracy uprising.
Obama was simply reflecting the mood of the US electorate, who chose him again in 2012. In many ways, Trump’s isolationist tendencies and “America first” philosophy build on the policies of the Obama administration. The difference is that the Trump team is deleting the rhetoric.
The roots of this issue go even deeper in US history. Since the early 20th century, the clash between ideals and self-interest has been the defining characteristic of US foreign policy. After the first world war, President Woodrow Wilson committed to supporting the new democratic countries of Europe and the League of Nations, only to see Congress and the US public reject such an activist foreign policy.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States once again made democracy promotion a key element of its foreign policy and appeared to score successes in Eastern and Central Europe, although most of those countries had democratic roots that predated their inclusion in the Soviet orbit. The Middle East and much of Asia have proven to be more of a challenge and the costly and self-defeating strategy followed by Bush had a traumatising effect.
Pressure from NGOs and Democrats in Congress probably will cause Tillerson to back down and include that word — democracy — somewhere in the State Department’s mission statement. For now, though, that’s all it will be: A word.