U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is defending his efforts to redesign the State Department, but the process has left many of its 36,000 employees in Washington and around the world feeling anxious about their mission.
Tillerson was welcomed warmly to the State Department six months ago. But some current and former ambassadors and foreign policy experts say they are worried about a number of indications that the Trump administration plans to lower the priority of promoting democracy and human rights in U.S. foreign policy.
Unspent engagement money
Take, for example, the $80 million in unused cash designated by Congress for the Global Engagement Center, which works to counteract disinformation campaigns by terrorist groups and foreign countries such as North Korea, China, and Russia.
R.C. Hammond, a top communications official at the State Department, told Politico this week that the money — $60 million in the Pentagon budget and $19.8 million in State Department coffers — has not been distributed because the Global Engagement Center has not submitted a clear plan for how to spend it. Tillerson must request the $60 million from the Pentagon before Sept. 30, but has made no move to do so.
Hammond cited possible budget and staffing cuts as the reason Tillerson has not requested the funds.
Politico also reported that Hammond “expressed hesitation about needling the Russians” by trying to counteract Russia’s disinformation campaign while Tillerson has been holding negotiations with his counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, on Syria.
Some Former Diplomats Worry About Planned State Department Changes
At a State Department news briefing Thursday, however, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said the Global Engagement Center is still hard at work.
“The Global Engagement Center continues to execute its mission,” Nauert said. “There is a process underway to ensure any future funding or programs account for the most appropriate tactics and strategy, especially in countering propaganda from countries such as Russia that have minimal protections for free speech or the media. The Global Engagement Center is already funded in FY [fiscal year] 2017 with $16.3 million.”
She added that as a former businessman, Tillerson is looking at how to spend money as effectively as possible.
Former Ambassador Laura Kennedy served the State Department for almost 40 years under Republican and Democratic administrations. She told VOA she is concerned about the State Department not using the funds available.
“Countering ISIS propaganda? ... This is at the top, or should be at the top of our priority list,” Kennedy said. “And Russian disinformation is nothing new — nor are our efforts to project our own messages and counter ones that are antithetical to our own interests. We have always done this.”
Senators Rob Portman of Ohio and Chris Murphy of Connecticut co-authored a bill last December that authorized the money in question. This week they released a statement criticizing the State Department for not using it.
“Congress has provided substantial resources to combat foreign propaganda, particularly from Russia,” Portman, a Republican, said. “There is broad agreement that the U.S. government is behind the curve on this threat. ... Countering foreign propaganda should be a top priority, and it is very concerning that progress on combating this problem is being delayed because the State Department isn’t tapping into these resources.”
Murphy, a Democrat, called the delay indefensible.
“Every day,” he said, “ISIS is spreading terrorist propaganda and Russia is implementing a sophisticated disinformation campaign to undermine the United States and our allies. There should be no doubt these are critical challenges to our national security.”
The holdup could be indicative of greater changes ahead.
The Washington Post reported this week that a proposed new mission statement for the State Department is circulating. The wording, which is subject to change, would eliminate any mention of human rights or promotion of democracy.
The draft mission statement, as quoted by the Post from an internal memo, read: “Lead America’s foreign policy through global advocacy, action, and assistance to shape a safer, more prosperous world.”
Gone would be the current language, which stresses shaping “a peaceful, prosperous, just, and democratic world and foster conditions for stability and progress for the benefit of the American people and people everywhere.”
Experts on diplomacy say this signals a possible change in direction, moving from promotion of democracy and human rights everywhere to a narrower focus on what is good for the United States.
Daniel Runde, director of the Project on U.S. Leadership in Development for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, notes, “The Trump administration has every right to rethink our public diplomacy strategy. The United States, the source of public relations and strategic communications, ironically and sadly has great difficulty in persuading fence-sitting publics that need to be persuaded.”
Nicholas Rostow of Colgate University is a former legal adviser to the National Security Council. He says removing human rights from the equation makes sense, from a more isolationist standpoint.
However, he says, "Support for human rights has been a theme, albeit not a consistent theme, of American foreign policy for the entire history of the United States. Those favoring Realpolitik or isolationism tend not to think that speaking up for the international rule of law and therefore the just treatment of individuals or groups is an American interest. It nonetheless is American as apple pie. In addition, the existence and proliferation of nuclear weapons make international engagement, working closely with partners and allies, and collective insistence on respect for the most fundamental norms of international life, not a matter of sentiment, but survival."
Foreign policy positions
Others see the changes as dangerous.
Elliott Abrams served in foreign policy positions in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, specializing in humanitarian affairs and international cooperation. He told The Washington Post, “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.”
Former Ambassador Kennedy also objects.
“It is impossible to divorce our foreign policy with democracy and justice,” she said. “These are core to who we are as a people. These principles go back to the very founding of our country, the establishment of the State Department, as the first Cabinet ministry. So I find it inexplicable that you would consider removing them.”
Kennedy said she and some current State Department colleagues were also troubled that Secretary Tillerson did not personally present the State Department’s annual human rights report this year, breaking with tradition.
She said she feels that Tillerson rightly condemned Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro this week for trying to roll back human rights in his country.
But she asked how the United State can criticize other countries for human rights abuses unless it keeps promoting human rights, justice and democracy front and center in its own statements and actions every day.