In many regards Ronald Reagan was not a good president. But you have to give The Gipper credit for at least one thing: the man was bullish on America. He believed the country was a "shining city on a hill" that was an example for the world to follow. Granted, we very often didn't live up to that ideal while he was president, and in many ways we still don't. But the American standards of freedom and justice were things we at least attempted to advocate around the world.
Now, almost 30 years after the end of the Reagan era, the administration of Donald J. Trump is apparently preparing a new message for the fledgling democracies of the world: "you're all on your own now."
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has ordered his department to come up with a new mission statement. And according to The Washington Post, the drafts of the new declaration of purpose for the State Department have eliminated promotion of democracy as one of the United States' diplomatic aims.
According to reporter Josh Rogin, the draft statements that were released on Friday contain the following:
- 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 current State Department Mission Statement:
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 change is so amazing that even former Reagan official and Iran-Contra criminal Elliott Abrams is shocked. "We used to want a just and democratic world, and now apparently we don’t," Abrams told The Washington Post. He 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."
Which may be exactly what the Tillerson/Trump team wants. Where does that idea come from? In part, from Tillerson himself.
In a speech to State Department employees in early May, Tillerson said that advocating for democracy shouldn't always be a priority for the US:
"I think it’s really important that all of us understand the difference between policy and values, and in some circumstances, we should and do condition our policy engagements on people adopting certain actions as to how they treat people. They should. We should demand that. But that doesn’t mean that’s the case in every situation. And so we really have to understand, in each country or each region of the world that we’re dealing with, what are our national security interests, what are our economic prosperity interests, and then as we can advocate and advance our values, we should – but the policies can do this; the values never change."
In other words, any foreign despot who is viewed favorably by the Trump administration can get a pass on the most heinous treatment of his citizens. But if Trump doesn't like you, be prepared to be bludgeoned with the "democracy" cudgel. We've already seen this at work in the very different ways Trump has behaved toward "allies" such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey versus his rhetoric regarding countries like Iran and Cuba.
Tillerson's request for a reworking of the mission statement is an ominous new development from an administration that is intent on reinventing American norms in international relations. Longtime allies are now treated with disdain, while authoritarian thugs such as Putin, Erdogan, and Duterte are lavished with praise and treated with deference.
So what next? If the United States is no longer interested in encouraging the development of American style democracies abroad, at least when that development interferes with US interests, how long will it be before democracy at home falls victim to those same interests? How long before we are told that we must let go of certain rights in the name of protecting "freedom?" If Congress doesn't do something to rein in Trump and his team, the answer to those questions may be, "not very long."
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