In her July 13 op-ed in Foreign Affairs, “How U.S. Officials Can Craft Innovative Human Rights Policy,” former Ambassador Sarah Mendelson recalls her work as a senior, politically-appointed foreign policy official in the Obama administration. Her personal mission, as she recalls, was to “elevate human rights”–first within USAID, and later when she worked for the US Mission to the United Nations.
Her initiatives to promote civil society and human rights within small powers such as post-Ben Ali Tunisia are admirable. However, her implicit suggestion that we ought to elevate human rights in our relations with great powers such as China and Russia is strategically incorrect. Our country’s policies vis-a-vis great powers (and to some extent medium powers, such as Turkey) must be guided, first and foremost, by a grand strategy rooted in our strategic interests, not one that aims to reflect our values.
In January 2010, Ambassador Mendelson was asked by the Obama administration to join USAID. Right away she embarked on a “proactive agenda” to push human rights to the top of the priority chain. Yet nearly three years later, as she was about to travel to Russia to assess the impact of America’s civil society promotion efforts there, Putin decided to quickly shut down USAID’s presence in Russia.
Astoundingly, she writes, she felt “upset” that there was “no consequence (from the U.S. government) for Russia’s actions.” This is a worrying sentiment from a senior official whose work impacts U.S. national security. Why should there have been a “consequence” for Putin’s crack-down on a political opposition promoted by USAID? Shouldn’t she have expected that to be the reaction of an authoritarian leader?
Both the U.S. and Russia have nuclear arsenals that could bring about the world’s destruction. The situation is is tense, in Syria and in Eastern Europe, where American forces are in close proximity to an increasingly bellicose Russia. There can be no room for error. There can and should be real consequences for Russian strategic misbehavior: for example, a Russian attack on one of America’s NATO allies, or meddling in the U.S. elections. But Putin’s reaction to the Obama administration’s democracy promotion in Russia (which the Kremlin viewed, probably correctly, as efforts to undermine his regime), does not rise to the level of injury Mendelson seemed to suggest.
If anything, Putin’s increasingly repressive measures should have had the opposite impact on Ambassador Mendelson: They should have caused her to reconsider attempts to elevate civil society promotion in powerful nations like Russia, an on-again/off-again adversary, especially since the results were so blatantly contrary to her intentions. And she should have considered, when reflecting on her time in government, whether her enthusiastic efforts to increase support to political opposition inside Russia inadvertently contributed to Putin’s decision to try to undermine Hillary Clinton during the 2016 elections.
Despite or because of USAID’s closing in Russia, Ambassador Mendelson continues, she doubled-down on her efforts to promote civil society in Russia. Following Putin’s closure of USAID, her team worked to establish “centers… in various parts of the world as places where members of civil society could learn to be more resilient and develop skills that made them better connected to the people they were meant to represent than to their foreign donors.” This is both disappointing and illogical. Disappointing because it exudes undiplomatic arrogance: Does she really think that individuals who are courageous enough to risk their lives being part of the opposition in politically repressive countries like Russia or China need foreign officials (many born and bred in an elite, upper-class bubble), to teach them on how to be “more resilient”? And how does ‘resilience training for activists in repressive countries’ look like? Solitary confinement in the morning, starvation in the afternoon, sleep deprivation at night, and torture at dawn?
In addition, such centers require the U.S. government to finance, lead, support, and sustain them. So the U.S. will (and in some instances already) becomes a foreign donor to centers that teach activists to pay less attention to foreign donors. This does not make sense.
The Ambassador is critical of President Donald Trump’s and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s omissions regarding human rights and civil society. Yet this is precisely what is needed at this point in history. Putting aside Iraq for a second (since she is not suggesting promoting human rights through military force), think of the regions where the U.S. has tried promoting civil society over the last two decades–Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East. Today the sovereignty of Georgia and Ukraine has been torn to shreds by Russia’s counter-reaction (from sending in “little green men,” to increasing cyber attacks on those countries’ critical infrastructures). Meanwhile political factionalism and corruption in both countries has made future progress impossible.
Promoting human rights, democratic institutions, or civil society can remain the aspiration of individual diplomats, but American foreign policy must first be guided by strategic interests. Today, the U.S. should seek to find ways to cooperate with China and Russia on Syria, Iran, North Korea, and other pressing challenges, rather than to “promote civil society” in Beijing or Moscow, and thereby inadvertently trigger an unnecessary and dangerous escalation in hostilities.
Dr. Oleg Svet is a defense analyst. The views expressed here are his own.