The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Tillerson leaves the Community of Democracies in the dark

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said he was "not going anywhere," denying news reports that he was considering leaving his post. (Video: Reuters)

The State Department is supposed to host a major international conference next month, bringing leaders from more than 100 democracies together in Washington. But as of now, nobody involved knows how or if the conference will take place because for several months Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hasn’t signed off on the plans.

For some lawmakers and the pro-democracy community, the State Department’s handling of the issue is only the latest in a long series of signs that the Trump administration is turning away from the United States’ role as champion of democracy and human rights around the world.

The Community of Democracies is an international coalition of states that meets regularly to promote democracy, civil society and good governance. The organization was founded in 2000 by former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and the late Polish foreign minister Bronislaw Geremek. Every two years, whichever country holds the rotating presidency pledges to host a foreign-minister-level meeting and all democratic governments are invited.

The ministerial meeting is the anchor for three days of events with officials, nongovernmental organizations, and democracy and human rights activists from around the world. But since the U.S. presidential election, neither officials nor the organizations involved have heard anything about the conference from the U.S. government.

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Administration officials and organizers told me the planning is stalled because Tillerson’s office hasn’t responded to his own building’s months-old proposals about the event. As planning time runs short, many see the State Department under Tillerson as shirking the U.S. commitment as current president of the coalition.

“At a time when autocrats are becoming more aggressive and sophisticated in repressing their own citizens and working in concert to undermine democratic societies beyond their borders, the Community of Democracies is even more relevant today than it was 15 years ago,” Albright told me. “This is a time when democratic governments must join together to reaffirm their common cause, to support each other and to confront those forces that would threaten a more peaceful, stable, prosperous and humane world.”

Inside the State Department, the project is organized by the bureau of democracy, human rights and labor (DRL), which drew up the plans last year. The original idea was to hold it at the Washington Convention Center, with foreign ministers from all democracies invited and including robust engagement by senior U.S. officials.

Earlier this year, Tillerson’s office told DRL to come up with less ambitious options and the bureau complied. They proposed a scaled-down event that would be held at the State Department, shortened to half of one day and only include representatives of the organization’s governing council, which has 30 members. As of Wednesday, Tillerson’s office had not responded to that proposal.

In response to my questions, a senior State Department official said: “The Department is considering a range of options for concluding our Presidency of the Community of Democracies. The United States remains committed to standing with democracies.”

Meanwhile, three nongovernmental organizations have been cautiously planning their accompanying events. The Open Society Foundations, Freedom House and the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law are moving forward with bringing hundreds of democracy activists to Washington, even though they have no idea if there will be a formal ministerial meeting or any substantial U.S. government involvement.

Morton Halperin, a senior adviser to the Open Society Foundations and a co-chair of the Community of Democracies’ international steering committee, said that the United States has an obligation to host the ministerial meeting as every other presidency has done, despite in many cases an intervening election and change of government.

“At this moment when American leadership is in question and democracy is at risk in many countries, the role of the Community of Democracies in helping countries remain on the path to democracy is crucial and the holding of a ministerial meeting an important symbol of American commitment to remain the shining light on the hill,” he said.

Democratic lawmakers are incensed by what they see as the State Department’s shabby treatment of the Community of Democracies as an organization and Tillerson’s overall track record on democracy and human rights promotion thus far.

House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking Democrat Eliot Engel (N.Y.) said that the State Department’s actions were only the latest in a string of missteps, including crafting a draft for a new mission statement that would remove the words “just” and “democratic” from the list of U.S. foreign policy objectives.

“It’s bad enough that the State Department is abandoning justice and democracy as foreign-policy priorities, but it now seems that Secretary Tillerson is also preparing to snub our fellow democracies,” he said. “America’s security and prosperity demand that we continue as a force for good in the world — that includes our leadership in the Community of Democracies.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) told me that even if the State Department goes forward with a scaled-down version of the conference, it is sending the wrong signal to democracies and autocracies alike.

“Making what is a significant global conference on democracy something that’s pared down is a continuous undercutting of that as one of the State Department’s core missions,” Menendez said. “America’s interests first and foremost are aligned with the democracies of the world.”

The Trump administration may see the Community of Democracies as a wasteful expense they inherited. But the United States already committed, the investment is minimal and Tillerson at least owes the participants enough respect to tell them his plans. Tillerson still has time to avoid sending yet another signal that the United States is getting out of the democracy business.