As the State Department resolves to promote religious freedom abroad, it highlights the administration’s inconsistent priorities. Liam Glen writes on the government’s myopic approach to human rights.
The US State Department is wrapping up its annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. The event, hosted by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, focused on religious persecution throughout the world with the goal of sparking a global grassroots movement to overcome it.
It is ironic considering that the current president campaigned on barring entrance to the US on the basis of religion, but this is an area where the administration deserves some credit.
It has made achievements for Christian and Yazidi rights in Iraq, for instance. 2017’s ministerial created an International Religious Freedom Fund.
At the same time, Trump himself has shown no signs that he personally cares about any human rights issue. He fawns over dictators and strongmen like Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, Recep Erdogan, and Rodrigo Duterte. His administration is obsessed with slashing the budget of the State Department, the branch of government with the greatest ability to promote rights abroad.
At home, he refuses to cooperate with UN human rights monitors, who are no doubt concerned about, among many other incidents, the administration’s inhumane immigration policies. Therefore, whenever the Trump administration discusses human rights, it is worth considering its incentives.
When the US government – or for that matter, any government – takes the moral high ground, strategic factors are hard to ignore. Secretary Pompeo is quick to condemn adversaries like the Chinese government, but when it comes to friends like Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, he voices his concerns privately, if at all.
When a hostile regime murders or unjustly imprisons its citizens, that is a tool to use against it. When any other state commits the same crime, it is a low priority.
Trump made a point of inviting North Korean defector Ji Seong-ho to the 2018 State of the Union during the height of tensions between the US and North Korea. Once relations thawed just a few months later, however, Trump called Kim Jong Un a “funny guy” who “loves his people.”
Trump’s brazenness is jarring, but he did not invent this practice. Selective self-righteousness is part of being a world power.
FDR laid the groundwork of the UN, but he allegedly justified his support for Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza García by saying that he “may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” As Reagan condemned the evil empire, he ran his own operation in Nicaragua, funding right-wing terrorists and drug cartels with the money he made by illegally selling weapons to the ayatollahs in Iran.
Lobbying for Freedom
Another noticeable factor in the administration’s human rights agenda is its focus on religious freedom, especially that of Christian minorities around the world. It does not take much guesswork to figure this out. It is an issue that resonates deeply with the president’s Evangelical base.
Some are tempted to condemn these Christian groups for their narrow focus. But not everyone can advocate for every cause all the time. We all must pick our own battles.
It is essential that someone stands up for Christians in communities where they face discrimination and legal persecution. The onus is on other human rights groups to bring their own issues to the forefront.
All things being equal, politicians in democracies like to support human rights. Sometimes, however, they need an extra push to take meaningful action.
In many cases, it does not even need to be a big push. For the most part, members of Congress want foreign policy achievements that they think that their voters will like – good trade deals, a strong national defense, and the like.
It does not always need to be something that directly benefits Americans, though. Republicans want to promote the rights of Christians abroad. There has traditionally been an incentive on both sides of the aisle to present oneself as being as pro-Israel as possible.
The latter has quite quickly shifted on the Democratic side. Whether that is for better or worse remains to be seen, but it shows that domestic opinion on foreign policy is changeable. And if politicians think that their base cares about an issue, they will act.