Donald Trump has derided U.S. democracy promotion since his presidential campaign. It now looks as if his State Department will adopt indifference to democracy and human rights as official policy. The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin reported that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is having State Department officials draw up a new mission statement. A draft of the new document now under review differs significantly from the old one in an important way: “Any mention of promoting democracy,” writes Rogin, “is being eliminated.”
The old statement read: “The Department’s mission is to shape and sustain a peaceful, prosperous, just, and democratic world and foster conditions for stability and progress for the benefit of the American people and people everywhere.” The new version calls for shaping a “safer, more prosperous world,” not a democratic one. As for “people everywhere,” the one place they’re not is in the new statement.
When the Trump administration makes a move, it’s best to assume that something accidental or absurd has happened, then to consider a purely cosmetic motive, and only after exhausting these angles to reflect on the possibility of genuine meaning.
The absurd: Trump’s State Department is understaffed and poorly managed at every level. For all we know, the new statement was written by an America-first newcomer and will be tossed out once some thoughtful official manages to get his hands on it. This administration has achieved virtually nothing in one shot (and hasn’t done much better after several.)
The cosmetic: Perhaps the administration views this as a quick way to demonstrate its #MAGA bona fides without having to make nuts-and-bolts policy. A headline will trickle down to Trump’s populist supporters about Trump taking us out of the democracy-promotion business, and that will be the extent of it. In the real world, the administration will continue to act within the broad parameters of interests and ideals that have always defined our foreign policy. That will mean continuing to promote democracy and human rights abroad when prudent.
The meaningful: It could be that Tillerson or others take Trump’s rhetoric about America minding its own business seriously. In that case, the new statement stands as is and the State Department will have to dismantle the American democracy-promotion and human-rights apparatus that’s been active for decades.
The frustrating thing about analyzing the Trump presidency is that we have to take it more seriously than it takes itself. There is no other way to react to an American presidential administration. Everything done by the White House or State Department has massive potential ramifications. The downgrading of democracy promotion could sow discord around the world and even cause harm to the United States.
It’s true that American democracy promotion and human-rights activism haven’t been wildly successful of late. Liberal democracies don’t sprout up in place of every dictatorship we single out for sanction. There is little the United States can do to create political freedom on foreign soil. But that’s not the point.
By declaring ourselves champions of liberty and backing up that sentiment with economic policy, diplomatic ingenuity, and military strength, the U.S. serves as a steady deterrent to those who otherwise wouldn’t hesitate to make things more oppressive than they already are. If Vladimir Putin or the Iranian mullahs have less reason to worry about American disapproval, they’ll tighten their grip on their own people and look to further violate the sovereignty of other countries. And that’s when all the America First bluster falls apart.
A United States that doesn’t—even in theory—stand for freedom will engender a more destabilized world. That, in turn, will require the U.S. to intervene in one crisis or another. America First ultimately means America last. Once everyone else has done their worst, we’ll have to mobilize and take bold action to protect American interests.
But there’s always the absurd and the cosmetic to consider. The new State Department document could signify little. The president hasn’t even tweeted about it yet.