Rex Tillerson's new goal for the State Department: Drop democracy promotion abroad

Did Secretary of State Rex Tillerson just abandon the cause of justice and democracy abroad?

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published August 1, 2017 3:31PM (EDT)

 (AP/Ivan Sekretarev)
(AP/Ivan Sekretarev)

You'd think that only supervillains would oppose justice and democracy overseas, but Donald Trump's top foreign diplomat may prove you wrong.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson may be abandoning America's longstanding habit of promoting justice and democracy throughout the world — or, at the very least, paying lip service to that ideal. Tillerson has ordered a new statement of purpose for the State Department, and draft statements have been leaked, according to a report by The Washington Post. While the new statements are similar to the old mission statement, one key difference is that the new draft omits any explicit reference to democracy or justice.

According to an internal email sent out on Friday by the State Department's Executive Steering Committee:

  • 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.”

By contrast, the first sentence of the previous State Department Mission Statement specifically called for "a peaceful, prosperous, just, and democratic world."

Former senior State Department officials told the Post that the elimination of that line is the only significant change Tillerson's agency made. "We used to want a just and democratic world, and now apparently we don't," said Elliott Abrams, who served as deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy during the George W. Bush administration.

"It's a worldview similar to that of Putin, who also thinks that great powers should focus exclusively on self protection and enrichment, rather than promoting democracy," said Tom Malinowski, who served in the department under President Barack Obama. "By removing all reference to universal values and the common good it removes any reason for people outside the United States to support our foreign-policy."

This isn't the first time that Tillerson has seemed to move the State Department away from its historic mission of ostensibly promoting humanitarianism. Last month the Secretary of State reassigned employees at the State Department’s Office of Global Criminal Justice, which is responsible for hunting down war criminals, and eliminated its website dedicated to human rights issues. One week earlier, Tillerson had criticized the State Department for being "not a highly disciplined organization," even though he had failed to adequately staff it. And in a speech to State Department employees in early May, Tillerson said that advocating for democracy shouldn't always be a priority for the U.S.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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