When America First Means Putting Democracy Second

America First
JEFF SWENSEN/GETTY

News that the State Department is scrubbing the promotion of justice and democracy from its mission is just the latest in a steady and unending stream of signals the Trump administration is pushing the nation further away from small-d democracy. It follows the alienation of democratic allies, the promotion of undemocratic ideals abroad, and perhaps most egregiously, the cozying up with authoritarian dictators around the world.

Were the State Department’s actions an outlier for the administration, the move to stop promoting democratic norms and justice across the globe would merely be cause for concern. As it stands, the change appears to be the next logical step in a long, calculated plan completely altering the United States’ position on foreign policy, on norms, and on the global stage.

Small-D Democracy

One of the State Department’s primary missions – other than diplomacy – is the promotion of small-d democracy and justice around the world. The promotion of these ideals is meant to thwart the shadow of fascism, authoritarianism, and other forms of dictatorial governing styles.

Russia offers a prime example of the form of government the mission of promoting democracy and justice seeks to achieve. Compare the decayed democratic institutions in Russia with other democratic countries with independent branches of government untainted by corruption and malpractice; free press unhindered by state interference; free exercise of religion (even unpopular belief systems).

That said, the State Department’s change in policy should alarm everyone. The Washington Post detailed the changes in progress:

According to an internal email that went out Friday, which I obtained, the State Department’s Executive Steering Committee convened a meeting of leaders to draft new statements on the department’s purpose, mission and ambition, as part of the overall reorganization of the State Department and USAID. (The draft statements were being circulated for comment Friday and could change before being finalized.)

  • 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.”

Compare that to the State Department Mission Statement that is currently on the books, as laid out in the department’s fiscal year 2016 financial report:

“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 Post spoke with several experts on the change who raised red flags:

Former senior State Department officials from both parties told me that eliminating “just” and “democratic” from the State Department’s list of desired outcomes is neither accidental nor inconsequential.

“The only significant difference is the deletion of justice and democracy,” said Elliott Abrams, who served as deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy during the George W. Bush administration. “We used to want a just and democratic word, and now apparently we don’t.”

Abrams added, “That change is a serious mistake that ought to be corrected. If not, the message being sent will be a great comfort to every dictator in the world.”

The Post added:

Tom Malinowski, who served as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor for the Obama administration, said the new proposed mission statement brings U.S. foreign policy into closer alignment with that of some of America’s chief adversaries, including Russia.

“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,” he said. “By removing all reference to universal values and the common good it removes any reason for people outside the United States to support our foreign-policy.”

None of this should come as a surprise given other events in the current administration.

Trump Embraces Authoritarianism

When not praising dictators like Putin or the newly elected far-right nationalists in Poland, Donald Trump uses language drawn directly from authoritarian propaganda. His inaugural speech offers one of the most prominent examples.

“We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to follow,” Trump said in January.

His authoritarian language didn’t start there though; rather, his presidential campaign was thick with isolationist and authoritarian references. Take his ‘America First’ slogan, for example. That slogan was created by Nazi sympathizers in the United States during World War II to encourage the nation to think of “America First” and force our allies to fend for themselves.

The Atlantic looked into the slogan’s history a while back noting:

But the phrase “America first” also has a darker recent history and, as my colleague David Graham pointed out Friday, was associated with opponents of the U.S. entering World War II.

The America First Committee (AFC), which was founded in 1940, opposed any U.S. involvement in World War II, and was harshly critical of the Roosevelt administration, which it accused of pressing the U.S. toward war. At its peak, it had 800,000 members across the country, included socialists, conservatives, and some of the most prominent Americans from some of the most prominent families. There was future President Ford; Sargent Shriver, who’d go on to lead the Peace Corps; and Potter Stewart, the future U.S. Supreme Court justice. It was funded by the families who owned Sears-Roebuck and the Chicago Tribune, but also counted among its ranks prominent anti-Semites of the day.

From “America First” to the demonization of “otherness” and calls for an isolationist foreign policy, Trump began his presidency on an authoritarian tone and planted seeds that are now beginning to blossom.

In a article published earlier this year, Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth touched on this explaining:

Most people in the United States have no experience with autocratic government, but experience elsewhere teaches us that it can arrive with extraordinary speed, signaled not by tanks surrounding the presidential palace but by the erosion of democratic norms. We may take comfort in the strength and vigor of the U.S. democratic system, with its many checks and balances, but we should resist complacency, because each has its fragility.

A professional, free and fair press, for example, has a vital role to play, but it is not immune to official intimidation or the diversion of “alternative facts.”

A fiercely independent judiciary is essential, but judges are susceptible to pressure and intimidation. They will need courage to defend rights if the president persists in promoting abusive policies.

Here are a handful of examples from the last six months where Trump emphatically embraced authoritarianism or a leader who uses those tactics:

  • His constant focus on and demonization of immigrants and inaccurate portrayal of the immigrant community as being primarily composed of murderers, rapists and other criminals.
  • Transforming the White House into a classic example of raw kleptocracy.
  • Trump’s speech in Poland following their nationalist government takeover that included quelling free press. In a press conference with Polish President Andrzej Duda, Trump not only failed to promote the democratic ideals around free press, but explicitly agreed with Duda’s crackdown on Poland’s independent press. After deriding CNN and NBC as “fake news” during the conference, Trump asked  “Do you have that also, Mr. President?” (Though Duda nodded in agreement, the wink and nod could be seen around the world.)
  • Any of the constant attacks on democratic norms from calling any mainstream news critical of his administration “fake news” to his attempts to subvert the judiciary and the investigation into his administration’s potential collusion with Russia during their attack on the 2016 elections.

In an article published at Slate, Yascha Mounk argued:

Trump did not come into office as a sworn enemy of the FBI, or the filibuster, or even the judiciary. But since all of these institutions have hampered his ability to rule by fiat, or stand above the rule of law, each of them has quickly come to bear the brunt of his anger.

When the director of the FBI refused to pledge his personal loyalty to the president, or to shut down the bureau’s investigation into the campaign’s ties to Russia, Trump fired him. When the Senate failed to take health care away from millions of Americans, Trump called for the abolition of the filibuster. And when judges on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals repeatedly ruled against the administration, Trump threatened to dissolve it.

So far, a lot of this authoritarian behavior has remained in the realm of rhetoric. This is not to say that it’s harmless: When the president exhorts cops to rough up suspects, for example, this is likely to lead to some all-too-real violations of basic rights. Even so, the key question now is whether Trump’s authoritarian instincts will eventually push him one crucial step further—pitting his administration against other branches of government in deed as well as in word.

She concluded:

And yet, it is also clear that, six months into his presidency, Trump is already morphing into the authoritarian he was destined to become. Frustrated with the barriers put in his way by independent institutions, he now considers himself at war with them. Though he remains a lot less ideological than Orban or Erdogan, his authoritarian instincts are pushing him toward the same destination. There is little reason to think that he is less of a danger to democracy than they have proved to be.

His penchant for seeking power and refusal to hold himself accountable to the rule of law means Trump will only allow democratic institutions to further erode as his administration further unravels.

Downstream Impacts

While the obvious and immediate outcome of Trump’s embrace of authoritarian beliefs and tactics is the eroding of democratic institutions, a more insidious impact lies ahead only a fraction of the population has felt the effects of thus far. At the top of that long list is human rights.

The Washington Post article detailing the State Department’s plan to remove democracy and justice from their mission has a short section that touches on this. The Post explained:

The changes in the State Department mission statement may not seem very significant viewed in isolation. But Tillerson has made several statements and decisions that indicate he plans to lower the priority of democracy and human rights in U.S. foreign policy.

In his first speech to his State Department employees, he said promoting American values “creates obstacles” to pursuing America’s national security interests. In March, he broke tradition by declining to appear personally to unveil the State Department’s annual human rights report.

In another example, the State Department will soon eliminate the www.humanrights.gov website and move its content to an alternative web address, www.state.gov/j/drl, a State Department official told me.

“It’s just so gratuitous. What efficiency is achieved or money is saved by taking something that is prominent on the Internet and hiding it?” said Malinowski. “The consequence is that it’s the 9,456th signal sent by the administration that they don’t care about promoting American values.”

We’ve documented many similar instances where the Trump administration is either overtly harming people through its policies (such as the LGBTQ community) or setting the stage for future harm (such as the eradication of digital resources throughout the White House website and elsewhere across government websites).

Tom Malinowski – an American diplomat who served as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor under the Obama administration – offered insight into the power of democracy and justice and how its promotion abroad is crucial. He said:

Leading with its values gave the United States a sense of purpose in the Cold War. It won that struggle, in part, because it articulated aims that appealed to people on both sides of the Iron Curtain—independence for the Baltic States; freedom of choice for the Hungarians, Czechs, and Poles; and security guarantees to the Soviet Union that came with promises to respect human rights. Of course, America was selective, directing the rhetoric of freedom at its enemies, not its friends. What of its backing of dictators like Pinochet and the Shah of Iran, or its bombing of Vietnam and Cambodia, or its crimes of racism at home? But these wrongs provoked debate in part because they so clearly contradicted American ideals, and because Americans took their self-image seriously.

Over time, and especially as the exigencies of a bipolar world fell away, America adjusted its actions to fit that image more than the other way around. By the late 1980s, pressed by a growing international human rights movement, the United States had sanctioned apartheid-era South Africa and helped push from power both Chile’s Pinochet and the Philippines’s Ferdinand Marcos, a one-time ally. In the 1990s, human rights activists who had once denounced U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia and Central America began urging military action in Kurdistan, Bosnia, and Kosovo, to protect victims of mass violence. The U.S. government began barring aid to foreign military units that had committed human rights abuses. It doled out grants to foreign civil society groups promoting democracy and human rights, even those critical of U.S. allies (like Egypt) and policies (like its use of landmines).  

By the time I joined the Obama administration in 2014, it was widely expected that the president of the United States would raise human rights concerns in just about every meeting with a foreign leader, and meet with activists in countries he visited. If a dissident was arrested, an opposition party banned, or an atrocity committed somewhere in the world, the State Department would almost certainly have something to say. My colleagues and I were proud of our role in encouraging democratic transitions in Burma and Sri Lanka; many of us anguished over our hesitations, from Rwanda in 1994, to Syria today. We argued constantly about the means of human rights promotion, but hardly ever about the ends.

He added:

Even where people hate American policies, there is a notion of America that transcends that hatred: the idea of a country where people can be who they are and say what they think; where they are basically treated fairly, whatever their race or religion; where the justice system is not corrupt; where the powerful obey the law and are punished when they don’t; where refugees and immigrants can become as much a part of society as the descendants of its first settlers. When America is blamed for compromising this ideal, it is because the world counts on the country to live up to it. This is a burden but also a blessing.

And over time, the values America stands for have become embedded in the daily business of international relations all over the world. Today, not only American leaders, but the UN secretary general, urge Russia to stop killing civilians in Syria. The UN Security Council discusses political prison camps in North Korea. The European Union gives awards to Chinese dissidents. At global gatherings, nations affirm the Western vision of a global internet that no government can censor or control. The G-20 tries to stop kleptocrats from hiding their money in Western banks. The Organization of American States censures Venezuela for abandoning democracy. The African Union documents war crimes in Sudan.

This has been a great success of American diplomacy. But if you are an authoritarian ruler of iron grip and fragile legitimacy like, say, Vladimir Putin, it is also dangerous. In every capital of diplomacy and finance, you hear talk of universal values and norms. You see the same ideas migrating onto placards held by protestors ousting strongmen from Libya to Ukraine. You fear that your own people will get the same idea.

What happens when a man who abhors democratic institutions, norms, and rule of law wins the presidency with the help of one of those dictators? Malinowski added:

This new American president gives key government tasks to his family. He places military officers above civilians (as an Egyptian diplomat said to one of my colleagues after the election: “You are just like us now, reporting to generals!”)You realize, to your delight, that you can make business deals with his sons, rent conference rooms in his hotels, even put his future national security adviser on your payroll. What an incredible opportunity this presents, not only to buy influence, but to show that America is no better than any other country, that the world’s policeman is not only off the beat but on the take.

If you’re an authoritarian leader, you can also rest assured that Trump’s America Firstism will, by definition, inspire no one outside America. It will give no one in your country a reason to look up to and align with the United States. Your people will hear from the American president exactly what they hear from you: America protects its interests; other countries protect theirs. There are no universal values. Everything is transactional.

This is Putin’s ultimate end game. This is every global dictator’s ultimate end game. They want the shining “city upon a hill” to lose its luster. They want the world to return to shadow and mistrust – a world they can more easily move in, govern in, and control.

The very concept of liberal democracy is at stake, and saving it – and America’s reputation on the global stage – will take a bipartisan effort led by those who helped put Trump into office.

Malinowski has some advice for those Republicans, too:

Even if they support Trump politically, they’ll need to join with Democrats to protect civil liberties and the integrity of American democracy, and serve as an alternative voice of America. On the Hill, they can bolster America’s anti-corruption and ethics laws and the institutions that enforce them. They can protect the parts of the State Department budget essential for advancing American values, including funding for civil society groups in closed societies. That includes supporting funding for the United Nations, given that the new Secretary General Antonio Gutteres, and the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid al Raad, are among the few global leaders today willing to speak up for the values the United States traditionally defends.

Here’s to hoping that Republicans can begin putting people (and country) over party before it’s too late.

Tim Peacock is the Managing Editor and founder of Peacock Panache and has worked as a civil rights advocate for over twenty years. During that time he’s worn several hats including leading on campus LGBT advocacy in the University of Missouri campus system, interning with the Colorado Civil Rights Division, and volunteering at advocacy organizations. You can learn more about him at his personal website.

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