Republicans of all people should know that scrubbing words from an administration’s vocabulary (e.g., “Islamic terrorism” or “Islamic fundamentalism”) can be a powerful signal to enemies and friends around the globe. Language is the stock and trade of diplomats, so even small changes can carry great weight. When changes come in a context in which the administration’s commitments and/or intentions are unclear, word choice can be even more powerful, whether it is intended to be so or not.
That’s why my colleague Josh Rogin’s scoop on the State Department considering excising “democracy” and “just” (as in a “just society”) from its mission and purpose statements matters so much. Former State Department employees told Rogin that eliminating the changes are “neither accidental nor inconsequential.” Foreign policy gurus agree, slamming the language shift and the State Department’s performance more generally. “A decision to erase ‘democracy’ from the State Department’s mission statement would be both disturbing and wrong,” Michael Abramowitz of Freedom House tells me. “America should stand up for both its interests and its values. We will be safer and more prosperous if we live in a world governed by democracies, and we should make democracy support a central goal of our foreign policy.”
Speaking to a small group of reporters on Tuesday, the ranking Democrat of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Ben Cardin (Md.), said he was “extremely concerned” about the State Department, citing lack of staffing and the edits Rogin reported. “Democratic countries don’t go to war against each other,” he said. He observed that democracies save the United States “significant resources.” Combined with rumors that staff and programs are getting axed, Cardin said the entire situation was “demoralizing.” He bluntly decried the absence of coherent policies on a whole range of issues. The mild-mannered Cardin rarely expresses such abject frustration with the entire State Department, but the situation is plainly reached a critical stage. I imagine Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is going to get an earful soon.
The language change and the leak of the language underscore both a management and a policy failure at State that has prompted a torrent of criticism from conservatives and liberals alike. As to the management failure, a leak such as this inevitably results when the secretary and a tight-knit group of advisers isolate themselves from everyone else. The drafters may not have realized the significance of the change; only through a leak could concerned members of the department communicate their objection. Moreover, systematically stripping tens of thousands of people of the opportunity to weigh in on matters large and small will prompt them to become resentful, to provide leaks and to foot-drag. In the business world this sort of high-handedness might have worked, but in government Tillerson has set himself up for an unwinnable battle that will consume his staff and paralyze his department.
The more serious, substantive issue at State concerns the administration’s attempt to obliterate democracy as a central element in our foreign policy. President Trump and Tillerson seem utterly ignorant when it comes to what has made America great around the world. “Thomas Jefferson was America’s first Secretary of State, and his role in sculpting the great documents of our democracy infused his diplomacy that human rights and democracy as America had achieved them were meant to be universal conditions,” foreign policy wonk Steve Clemons remarked via email. “The fact that today’s Department of State is lobotomizing democracy promotion from its mission defames Jefferson, undermines a key source of American power and status in the world, and robs America of its purpose.”
This comes at the worst possible time, when we are engaged in diplomatic, ideological and, in some cases, military battle with non-democratic regimes, who see our commitment to democracy as insincere and hypocritical. When we lop off our commitment to democracy, thuggish leaders breathe a sigh of relief in Iran, Russia, China, Turkey, Venezuela, Cuba and elsewhere. They can tighten their hold on power, crack down even further on their people and be assured that it will cost them nothing on the international stage. We signal to countries such as Poland and Hungary that are falling in with anti-democratic populism and that the shift away from a free society is of no consequence to us. We lose not simply our animating purpose but a key tool in foreign policy — the ability to shame, undermine, weaken and sanction repressive regimes.
The shift away from democracy, says, former State Department official and now frequent Trump critic Eliot Cohen “makes a mockery of the claim that this is normal Republican foreign policy. It’s a betrayal of it by people who should know better.
One suspects downgrading of democracy reflects not only the twisted “America first” philosophy Trump and Stephen K. Bannon have brought with them but also an over-correction from the George W. Bush years, when “democracy promotion” became tangled up in the Iraq War. (The latter was started over WMD’s, for the record, not to “impose democracy.”) Cliff May, who heads the Foundation for Defense of Democracies tells me, “I think it would be a great mistake for the U.S. government to give the appearance that it no longer values democracy. That should not be confused with harboring the conceit that we can export democracy.” He adds, “We should support democrats, those fighting for freedom and human rights. If we don’t, who will?”
In fact, democracy promotion — pressure directed at undemocratic adversaries, support for those persecuted by undemocratic states and reinforcement for besieged pro-democratic leaders in struggling democracies — is an alternative to force, a key element of “soft power.” Since that is what the State Department does (wield soft power) the effort to bury “democracy” undercuts the influence of the State Department. And that perhaps is what this is really about — dismantling and muzzling the State Department. Indeed if you want to do that, to make the State Department weak and ineffective, you’d slash staff and programs, demoralize career foreign service personnel, strip it of purpose and eliminate an important instrument of power. In other words, you’d do just what Tillerson and his cabal have done. Making the State Department weak does not make America great; it enfeebles America.
If Chief of Staff John F. Kelly is worth his salt, he’ll blow the whistle on this fiasco, urge the president to fire Tillerson and bring on people who are dedicated to, yes reforming the department, but doing so in ways that empower it and bolster American prestige in the world.