This week brings another alarming indication that the Trump Administration is turning its isolationist, “America first” rhetoric into policy, which will have dangerous implications for the world’s women. The Washington Post reports that Secretary of State Tillerson has ordered the State Department to develop a new mission statement that omits the promotion of justice and democracy abroad.
According to the Post, the proposed revision of the mission statement calls for the State Department to, “Lead America’s foreign policy through global advocacy, action and assistance to shape a safer, more prosperous world.” This is a departure from the current statement, which reads: “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….”
Current Mission Statement:
Proposed Mission Statement Draft:
The deletion of “just and democratic” is no small omission; the suggested changes would fundamentally alter the work of the State Department. The revised mission statement fails to recognize that investments in global development “ultimately better prepare us for the challenges of tomorrow” (the current language). Also, the draft mission removes references to the role of the Unites States as a force for good in the world. This approach is shortsighted. One has to look no further than global health emergencies, like Zika or Ebola, or the interconnected nature of the global economy, to see that what is good for the world is good for America.
A safer and more prosperous world is one that is more democratic, equal, and just. It is one where the human rights of all people are valued, respected, protected, and fulfilled. Previously, the United States fought for these rights through its diplomacy, including and especially for women and girls. Now, the proposed revision signals to the rest of the world that the United States, which once held itself up as a beacon of democratic norms and values, is abandoning the fundamental principles and standards upon which the United States was founded.
Efforts by the State Department to hold other governments accountable for their human rights violations and nondemocratic processes will be undermined. Secretary Tillerson recently called out Venezuela for its human rights violations at his 6-month press conference. What weight would future actions like this have when countries know that democracy and justice are no longer priorities for US foreign policy?
Finally, the draft mission statement sends a clear signal to authoritarian figures around the world that the United States will turn a blind eye when they commit crimes against their people. As Elliott Abrams, Deputy National Security Adviser for Global Democracy Strategy under George W. Bush, said when asked about the draft mission statement, “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 consequences of these proposed changes will be borne heavily by women and girls. Past US administrations recognized that nondemocratic regimes—such as those of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, El Sisi’s Egypt, or Putin’s Russia—often first and most harshly violate the rights of women and girls. By targeting women’s rights—and invoking arguments of “culture,” “traditional values,” or “religious beliefs” to justify their assaults—leaders seek to solidify their popular support. As such, violations of women’s rights are often the “canary in the coal mine:” the first indication within a country that human rights, democracy, and justice for all are at risk.
Should the State Department adopt this draft mission statement, it would compound other alarming actions that threaten to undermine US leadership in the world, like the reported shuttering of the War Crimes Office and a proposed restructuring of the federal government, including the State Department and the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Deleting justice and democracy from the mission of the State Department would obviously make it easier to cut good governance and democracy-promotion programs and personnel. Democracy and justice promotion have rightly been foreign-policy pillars for decades. This foundation is now at risk.
Responses from Capitol Hill to the draft mission statement were swift. On Twitter, for example, Senator Menendez (D-NJ) called it a “dangerous abdication of US leadership, making our world less safe by destabilizing global security.” Senator Cardin (D-MD), the Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, responded that he was “extremely concerned” by the Washington Post report. While such comments are welcome, members of Congress must do more. The House and Senate must use their powers of oversight to monitor any proposed mission or structural changes at the State Department, USAID, and other agencies involved in foreign diplomacy, such as the Peace Corps. They must continue to ensure that US foreign policy puts democracy, justice, gender equality, and human rights first.