Quietly Erasing Democracy Promotion at the U.S. State Department

America’s formal greetings to the world no longer stress the importance of democratic institutions.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets with Thailand's military junta leader General Prayut Chan-o-cha at the Government House in Bangkok, Thailand on August 8, 2017. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

by Rukmani Bhatia, Research Coordinator, Freedom in the World & Freedom of the Press

America’s formal greetings to the world no longer stress the importance of democratic institutions.

Recent reports have suggested that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson plans to remove reference to democracy promotion—a central pillar of U.S. foreign policy—from the State Department’s mission statement.

While the possible revision is still being discussed by State leadership, there is some evidence that the department is already removing mention of “democratic institutions” from its standard annual messages congratulating various countries on their independence days. There have been exceptions, but a reference to democracy was generally included in such messages in the past, even during the first several months of Tillerson’s tenure. Recently, however, Tillerson’s office has reportedly asserted direct control over the statements’ content, and that shift has coincided with the exclusion of language on democracy.

The excerpts below, comparing former secretary of state John Kerry’s 2016 statements with those from Tillerson, illustrate the change. Note that before this month, Tillerson’s statements typically included democracy references similar to those in Kerry’s remarks.

Lithuania, February 16

  • Kerry: Lithuania has always been, and remains, a vigorous champion of democratic values. As a member of the UN Security Council in 2014–15, Lithuania worked closely with the United States to pursue international peace, support the sovereignty of a democratic Ukraine, uphold human rights, and protect civilians in zones of conflict. I am confident that our mutual cooperation in these and other areas will continue—including our commitment to shared prosperity through the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.
  • Tillerson: Lithuania is a stalwart champion of democracy, free markets, and human rights. Our friendship with the Lithuanian people is based on our shared embrace of these values as demonstrated by Lithuania’s strong contributions to the International efforts to counter-ISIL and promoting stability in Afghanistan. As a valued NATO Ally, I have no doubt that the security partnership between Lithuania and the United States will continue to strengthen and our commitment to our shared defense will be unwavering.

Greece, March 25

  • Kerry: Our nations are united by a shared belief in democracy and liberty—first articulated in the agoras of ancient Greece and then serving as inspiration to America’s own Founding Fathers. In our bilateral relationship, we work together to promote regional stability, trade and investment, and the diversification of energy resources. The United States and Greece maintain strong bilateral military ties. As a NATO Ally, Greece is helping to secure Europe’s borders and deter smuggling in the Aegean Sea. We are also grateful for Greece’s efforts in the Counter-ISIL coalition as we work together to destroy Daesh.
  • Tillerson: The United States and Greece have enjoyed a longstanding friendship and partnership rooted in our shared democratic values and strong cultural ties. Greek-Americans have enriched our communities by sharing their cultural heritage. Greece is a valued NATO Ally and European Union partner and together we have made progress on common security goals, such as countering terrorism. Greece will have the continued support of the United States as it makes necessary reforms and works to emerge from economic challenges.

Tanzania, April 26

  • Kerry: Tanzania and the United States share a long history of cooperation and friendship. In the coming year, we will continue to work together to make progress in health and education, encourage economic growth, support democratic governance, and advance regional security.
  • Tillerson: Tanzania and the United States have had a strong relationship, marked by a collaborative effort toward shared goals and close cooperation on a variety of programs and initiatives, from health and education, promoting economic growth and democratic governance, and advancing regional security. In the coming year, we look forward to building on our shared accomplishments as we continue with our efforts.

Niger, August 3

  • Kerry: The United States commends Niger for its leadership in countering security threats and promoting economic development in the Sahel. We are committed to continued partnership in support of democratic institutions and humanitarian assistance, and we look forward to working together to improve irrigation and market access for agricultural products through the Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact you secured this year.
  • Tillerson: The United States will continue to work with Niger to encourage economic growth, assist with counterterrorism efforts, and support a vibrant civil society. We value our strong, multi-faceted partnership and commend Niger’s critical role in ensuring stability in the Sahel.

Jamaica, August 6

  • Kerry: The United States considers Jamaica a close friend and strong partner. Your vibrant democratic institutions, independent judiciary, and robust parliamentary system set a positive example throughout our hemisphere.
  • Tillerson: Jamaica plays an important role as a regional leader, most recently with its efforts on economic reform. We look forward to strengthened collaboration between our countries on security, prosperity, diplomacy, energy, education, and health—as underscored in the United States–Caribbean Strategic Engagement Act.

Bolivia, August 6

  • Kerry: Today, we join in celebrating Bolivia’s proud history, cultural diversity, and enduring social bonds. The United States remains committed to working closely with you to support economic development and strengthen democratic institutions, and we look forward to renewed engagement between our nations in the year ahead.
  • Tillerson: The United States and the people of Bolivia enjoy a deep and lasting relationship based on mutual respect. We take pride in our partnership with the Bolivian people to advance entrepreneurship and education initiatives that help Bolivians realize their full potential. The United States is one of Bolivia’s most important trading partners and we are committed to promoting mutually beneficial trade. We will continue to cooperate to protect and preserve Bolivia’s rich cultural heritage. We welcome the prospect of future collaboration based on mutual benefit and mutual respect.

The countries in these examples are relatively small. A more powerful sign of the State Department’s new direction may come next week, when both India and Pakistan will mark 70 years of independence.

For now, the department’s official mission remains to “create a more secure, democratic, and prosperous world for the benefit of the American people and the international community.” But formal messages from the United States’ chief diplomat already seem to reflect a new mandate, according to which democracy promotion is not a fundamental public good that serves the interests of America and the world.