By: Asgeir Barlaup
America’s chief diplomat, Rex Tillerson, is considering tossing out the word ‘democracy’ from the State Department’s instruction manual, according to an internal email issued by the Department’s Executive Steering Committee. Against the backdrop of massive funding cuts to the Department of State and USAID, the rewrite suggests an administration completely dismissive of human rights and democracy promotion. The proposed changes will take a heavy toll on American foreign policy capabilities, and are reflective of an administration not up to the awesome responsibilities entrusted upon it. The decision seems grounded in the following misconceptions:
Misconception 1. The American military is depleted.
This increase fell short in the eyes of many conservatives however, it only marked a 3 % increase from president Obama’s projected Defense Department spending for the same year. The President’s initial budget proposals therefore seem surprisingly modest, despite his explosive rhetoric on the issue.
This budget proposal is of course just that – a proposal, as all spending bills have to pass Congress to become law. The only major initiative to actually pass into law has undercut rather than increased military spending. The bill granted $15 billion for the current year – half of what the White House requested – under the pretext of fighting ISIS and continuing U.S. military operations in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Measured solely by the numbers, the current White House policy might seem more of a gradual continuation rather than a rapid departure from Obama’s tenure in office.
Critics often claim Obama is responsible for undercutting military spending, and by doing so, weakening the American military itself. In reality, the military spending of Obama’s first year in office was $691 billion – an all-time high – reflecting the height of U.S. engagements in the Middle East. Subsequent cuts are not reflective of Obama lessening the military capacity but rather of troop reductions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Assessing the U.S. military on the basis of these numbers alone is therefore unsatisfactory – cutting back on foreign operations does not mean the military itself is weakened.
A more accurate measurement for U.S. military capacity is across space rather than time. The U.S. defense budget surpasses that of all other major powers. In 2016, U.S. military spending surpassed that of China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, the United Kingdom, India, France and Japan – combined. China spent less than a third of the U.S. budget, and Russia less than a sixth. Looking at these numbers, it seems unlikely that the U.S. military lacks the means to counter any threat.
At the onset of the 21st century, the American military is facing a complex set of threats. Cyber warfare and climate change require new investments and strategies, funneling funds away from traditional programs. Hard choices will have to be made, with legitimate concerns over which programs to be prioritized. It is important to emphasize that this is on an issue-to-issue basis however – depleted B-52 bombers do not equate a depleted U.S. military.
Misconception 2. Radical Islamic terrorism constitutes the biggest threat to U.S. national security.
Calling for a nationwide ban on Muslims from entering the country was one of the key calls to action that launched then-candidate Trump’s run for office. This campaign promise laid the groundwork for the administration’s executive travel ban barring immigrants and refugees from several mainly Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. The implication was that America’s vetting procedures were not strict enough to root out foreign-born terrorists. Another core tenet of the ‘America First’ foreign policy is that: ‘defeating ISIS and other radical Islamic terror groups’ is the ‘highest priority’. These two stances – increasing border security and defeating ISIS – constitute the administration’s two flagship policies designed to keep Americans safe from ‘radical Islamic terrorism’.
These policies would have you believe that Islamic terrorism poses a serious threat to the daily lives of everyday Americans. The numbers however, tell a different story. Foreign terrorist organizations have not carried out a single successful terrorist attack since 9-11. In fact, the vast majority of perpetrators who have carried out attacks on U.S. soil have been citizens or permanent residents (around 80%). The travel ban policy is not keeping out those that are most likely to pose a threat, but rather arbitrarily punishing a low-risk group. No American has ever been killed in a terrorist attack by a Syrian refugee on U.S. soil or by any other refugee from any of the countries mentioned in the travel ban. If the main goal of the policy is to enhance safety, ramp up border security and campaign against ISIS it does little to offset the main trends in terrorist attacks over the last 16 years.
This trend is marked by a spike in ‘domestic’ or ‘lone wolf’ terrorist attacks. These attacks are carried out by an attacker without formal links to any terrorist organization, and with a complex set of motivations ranging from mental disorders, a sense of seclusion and political radicalization often found online. One might discuss the semantics of calling attackers like the Orlando shooter a ‘domestic’ or ‘radical Islamic’ terrorist on a case-to-case basis. Religious affiliation does play some part in the mosaic that makes up the terrorist’s background and reasoning for plotting the attack. However, it’s completely inaccurate to label the broad pattern of domestic terrorism on the basis of religious convictions alone. This diminishes the attackers complex psyche. Using the label ‘radical Islamist terrorism’ is a double foul, as it uses a religious label that only fits a minority of the perpetrators. Reports find that white supremacy and right-wing extremism, like the recent domestic terrorist attack in Charlottesville Va., remains the chief motivating factor for terrorist attacks in the United States. Using the term ‘domestic terrorism’ is the more precise phrasing, as it encapsulates the range of these attacks carried out by perpetrators with a multitude of motivations.
This administration’s rhetoric and policy proposals – namely increasing military spending and enacting stricter immigration rules under the pretext of keeping Americans safe from the ‘the war of radical Islamic terrorism’ – seems to disregard a number of key insights. The threat is neither foreigner nor Islamic – it’s probably white and American. The administration has also suggested cutting funding for domestic initiatives such as the ‘Counter Violent Extremism’ program, and to change the program’s profile to exclusively target ‘Islamic Extremism’. These changes are self-defeating and ignore the findings of most terrorism research. Radical Islamic terrorism does not constitute a bigger threat than other forms of terrorism, and risks fueling unjustifiable resentment against millions of Muslim-Americans.
Misconception 3. International democracy promotion is defunct, if not even an obstacle to national interests.
Outlining his ‘America First’ foreign policy, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson went to great lengths to distinguish the notion of values and policies, saying that: ‘our values around freedom, human dignity, the way people are treated – those are our values. Those are not our policies.’ But why do our values matter if they are not the basis for action?
Walking the tightrope between human rights and national interest is no easy task. It has always been a balancing act consecutive U.S. administrations have struggled with, building on the Regan-era vision of promoting international democracy and demonstrating leadership through diplomacy and soft power. Until now.
The administration’s 2018 budget proposals slash funding for the State Department and all kinds of civilian foreign aid (education, governance, food aid etc…). Adding insult to injury, Tillerson has also suggested eliminating the word ‘democracy’ from the State Department’s mission statement altogether. America will no longer be concerned with funding or advocating for the values they profess to care for – as according to Tillerson they create ‘an obstacle’ to advancing other interests.
Democracy promotion has warranted plenty of criticism, and rightfully so in those instances where it was installed as a top-down project, rather than an incremental and sustained attempt at building institutions. While the first approach is costly, ineffective, and a big contributor to the perceived ‘overextension’ of American authority, the latter strategy has less grandeur but more clout: making fairer and freer societies by working in concert with local civil society on initiatives such as transparency, freedom of expression, rule of law etc. While such work may be slow and tedious, it is a realistic and reasonable way to help people help themselves.
Encouraging change along one metric can cause second order effects on others, creating positive change beyond the original scope of action. Funding local journalists might help uncover government corruption that in turn increases transparency and accountability. Helping local activists pass a bill that criminalizes violence against women, helps to empower half the population. The previous examples are successful grassroots initiatives that have been supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, a government funded, non-profit advocate for democratic institutions through the world. The aforementioned cases also highlight the incremental and tedious nature of democracy work. Over time, state led advocacy has spawned a strong line of civil society actors like NED that hold unique expertise and operate independently of larger state-led initiatives. These organizations are hubs for activists across the world, and central to the promotion of democracy and human rights.
The bipartisan consensus supporting these groups seems more fragile now than ever. Trump’s assertion that ‘[America] is killing terrorists not nation building’, suggests a heavy emphasis on military action over all other approaches. While military approaches might tackle the symptoms of instability, they do little to address the root causes of it. This is where sustained, grassroots-led democracy promotion and development aid come into play. Freer and more democratic societies make for more stable partners and allies.
Soft power has been a bipartisan cornerstone of American foreign policy throughout the last four decades. It has unfortunately, been cast aside over the last few months in favor of brute force. Members of Congress, NGOs and citizens alike should work to ensure the continued existence of pro-democracy programs, while international partners in both government and the private sector should work to fill the void America is leaving behind. These values need to be defended now more than ever. America First foreign policy is based on a number of dangerous misconceptions that severely limit the means necessary to conduct effective foreign policy. The American military is not obsolete but rather the strongest in the world. The war on ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ promotes a highly divisive rhetoric that stigmatizes a fifth of the world’s population, while doing little to counter actual threats to Americans. And finally, advocating for democracy does not create ‘an obstacle’ to national interests as claimed by Tillerson. In reality it lays the foundation necessary to advance these interests.
Placing America First today ensures a less equitable and more hostile world for the generations of tomorrow.