Deeds, not Words

It’s been a busy week in Washington, DC, my hometown (more or less). It was one of those weeks when I cannot remember what seemed so momentous on Monday because it was overshadowed on Tuesday, and then again on Wednesday and Thursday and so on and so on. This morning, in the midst of stories about Anthony Scaramucci’s demise and President Trump’s role in crafting misleading press releases (and let’s be honest–how many press releases are intended to inform, really?) Josh Rogin of the Washington Post reported that the State Department is poised to remove democracy promotion from its mission statement. I am as ready as the next guy to lose my mind at whatever idiocy comes out of the current administration, but I think we should all hold our fire on this one.

The current State Department Mission Statement reads:

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. This mission is shared with the USAID, ensuring we have a common path forward in partnership as we invest in the shared security and prosperity that will ultimately better prepare us for the challenges of tomorrow.

The proposed revisions, according to Rogin:

  • The State Department’s draft statement on its purpose is: “We promote the security, prosperity and interests of the American people globally.”
  • The State Department’s draft statement on its mission is: “Lead America’s foreign policy through global advocacy, action and assistance to shape a safer, more prosperous world.”
  • The State Department’s draft statement on its ambition is: “The American people thrive in a peaceful and interconnected world that is free, resilient and prosperous.”

Rogin quotes former State Department official Elliott Abrams rather pithily: “The only significant difference is the deletion of justice and democracy.” Now if you are predisposed to see every action of the Trump administration as a conspiracy to undermine all that is good an pure in America, the omission of justice and democracy are as sinister as they can be. When viewed in the overall context of “America First” and other Trumpian rhetoric casting foreign relations as a zero-sum cage match against the rest of the world, assuming the worst is not completely unreasonable. However, let us start by focusing not on what is omitted but on what is included.

The draft statements make central the promotion of security and prosperity for the American people. While we could caveat or hedge that statement with some nod to limits or or further explanation that security and prosperity flow from worldwide democracy and justice, the basic meat of the sentence is true. This is a mission statement–not an action plan. The U.S. Department of State exists for the benefit of United States. It might provide ancillary benefits to others (it has), and it might be in the best interests of the U.S. to operate surrounded by like-minded nations, but that is not the core purpose of the department. The second bullet point does not add much to the first. The third points toward the external conditions that best support the security and prosperity of the U.S., namely a world that is “peaceful,” “interconnected,” “free,” “resilient,” and “prosperous.” In other words, there is no sane critic of the administration who would claim that the bullets as written are bad, only that they are incomplete, and that their incompleteness is emphasized by the prominent and pointed removal of language from the previous statement.

What, then, is the practical effect of removing the language? We might argue that taken in context, it sends a signal to autocrats that the new administration is not concerned with their autocratic behavior. For those who see American foreign policy in messianic terms, it removes a key tenet of our mission in the world–to spread our form of government to the huddled masses yearning to be free.

The first problem with those interpretations is the rampant hypocrisy. No rhetorical commitment to democracy or justice has ever stopped the United States from pursuing its perceived interests. If we include a call for worldwide democracy and justice in the State Department’s mission, will we cut ties with Erogan’s Turkey, or Saudi Arabia? If Poland and Hungary continue backsliding on democracy will we try to expel them from NATO? The U.S. willingness to coddle dictators when it suited has always weakened our calls for democracy and justice. Ronald Reagan claimed the moral high ground in the confrontation with the Soviet Union, but he did so while actively resisting the boycott of Apartheid South Africa and supporting right-wing authoritarians in Latin America. Words matter, but actions matter more. I will happily leave “democracy” and “justice” out of the State Department’s mission statement in exchange for pressure on Rodrigo Duterte. Stating that a world “free, resilient and prosperous” is in the U.S. interest provides the rhetorical underpinning for democracy promotion without committing the U.S. to actions that are tactically counterproductive.

The power of action and example over words points to the second major problem with an ostentatious championing of “democracy.” Right now is probably not the moment to sell the world on representative government in the U.S. or even European mold. The U.S. government is a daily clown show of buffoonish incompetents raised to the highest offices based on their slavish devotion to the President. The president is openly warring with his own attorney general and senators of his own party. Justice? The U.S. is seeking to deport the allies who stood beside us and face almost certain death at home as well as Mexican immigrants who have lived peacefully in the U.S. for decades and committed no crime.

The U.S. has exercised a powerful influence through its example when it has provided an example worthy of its ideals. For billions of people throughout the world, the United States has been more than a country offering cheap land, more than a job, more than a military power. It has been an ideal worthy of aspiration. Nobody grows up dreaming of leaving her home to move to North Korea or Cuba. Rather than worry about the symbolic removal of words we did not entirely mean, we would be far better served by devoting ourselves to once again becoming that beacon of hope–by aiding people in achieving self-determination where it is ripe and with less arrogance about the American form of government and more concern for the principles. We would do well to return to the spirit of John Quincy Adams’s speech, from which this blog takes its title:

Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will recommend the general cause, by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.

 

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