Does putting America first mean eliminating the promotion of democracy as a foreign-policy objective? According to a report from the Washington Post, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seems to believe it does.
Tillerson recently ordered the State Department to reconsider and rewrite its mission statement. A leaked draft of the result is fascinating: All references to democracy have been removed. Otherwise the new document looks similar to the old one. It seems the only real purpose of the revision was to de-emphasize the importance of democracy to U.S. foreign policy.
This suggests that the Trump administration, like its predecessor, has learned the lessons of the Iraq War too well. In Iraq, the U.S. attempted to use military force to install and export democracy. In its rush to hold elections, the Bush administration did not leave time for Iraq to develop the institutions necessary to sustain a democratic system. Though these are mistakes from which policymakers and military planners need to learn, they should not be construed as proof that the promotion of democracy itself — which does not require military force — is a misguided aim of U.S. foreign policy.
Yet Tillerson continues to provide signal after signal that America is no longer interested in promoting democracy, human rights, or anything else that could fall under the label of “our values” abroad. In his widely publicized first speech to the State Department, for example, he claimed that promoting American values “creates obstacles” to the pursuit of our national-security interests.
Honest observers must admit that this is sometimes true. Keeping America safe often requires the help of dictators and tyrants. If we refused to work with such despots in all circumstances, we would be choosing to abandon our own interests; we wouldn’t be putting America first.
However, there are plenty of occasions in which promoting American values is in the American interest. First, it is no accident that America’s best allies around the world are established liberal democracies, because these nations do not fight one another. They are able to work together toward common security and economic goals. That is why American presidents have for decades encouraged allies as well as enemies to make democratic reforms, become more accountable to their people, and treat their internal minorities more fairly. These are not only the right things to do, but also important steps to decreasing aggressiveness and accepting the American-led, liberal world order.
There is also plenty of evidence that good, democratic governance fosters predictability for investors and promotes economic development. This, too, is good for America: We want to trade with developing nations, not fight them.
Moreover, the U.S. benefits from being seen as a beacon of democracy and freedom. Our support for free people all over the world wins us friends in a way that hard-edged oppression could not. Indeed, turning our backs on the cause of liberty often means surrendering an important advantage over our adversaries.
There are endless reasons to continue to promote democracy by supporting important institutions, civil-society groups, NGOs, and dissidents abroad. As Ted Piccone, senior fellow at Brookings, has persuasively argued:
The Trump team will soon learn that supporting democratic institutions, rule of law, justice, accountability, and transparency are critical to protecting core U.S. national security interests. Strong democracies, after all, do not go to war with each other, do not spawn refugees, experience less civil conflict and terrorism, have more open and prosperous economies, and have a higher respect for international law and borders. In other words, if you care about defending U.S. national security, it’s your job to support the spread of democracy.
In continuing to express ambivalence toward democracy and human rights, the Trump administration is making a mistake. It needs to distinguish between failed efforts to export democracy and valuable efforts to promote democracy. Trump is right when he decries the folly of the former. Too often, they get us nowhere at great cost in lives and treasure. But the latter should remain a core part of U.S. foreign policy, because it is in our interests — as well as in accordance with our values — to encourage the diffusion of freedom and prosperity around the world.
Luckily, it is not too late for Rex Tillerson and the Trump administration to turn things around. An affirmation of the importance of democracy and human rights can and should be reinstated into the final version of the State Department’s mission. No “America First” foreign policy could be complete without it.