STATE DEPARTMENT — 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.
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
“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
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.”
Nicolas 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.
The Trump administration, he said, “sees promoting human
rights as getting us into trouble. I think they see it as tantamount to getting
us into the nation-building business, which they don’t like, and other ventures
like the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
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
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