American Diplomats Struggle to Defend Democracy Abroad Amid Crises at Home


WASHINGTON — American diplomats who are the global face of the United States are struggling with how to demand human rights, democracy and rule-of-law abroad amid concerns overseas and criticism at home over the Trump administration’s strong-arm response to the protests across the country.

Diplomats are being confronted by the unrest arising from the death of a black man in police custody in Minneapolis, assaults by security forces on protesters and journalists nationwide, and a tear-gas attack that Trump administration officials ordered this week on peaceful protesters outside the White House.

In private conversations and social media posts, career diplomats at the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development have expressed outrage after the killing of George Floyd and President Trump’s push to send the military to quell demonstrations.

Diplomats say that the violence has undercut their criticisms of foreign autocrats and called into question the moral authority the United States tries to project as it promotes democracy and demands civil liberties and freedoms across the world. It has also handed adversarial governments — including those of China, Russia and Iran — a powerful propaganda tool to paint a dark portrait of the United States.

“As American diplomats, it is our job to explain America to the world,” Eric Rubin, a career diplomat and former ambassador to Bulgaria, wrote in a letter Wednesday to the union of American Foreign Service officers that he leads. “We have always pointed to our story as being worthy of emulation.”

“This week, we have been forcefully reminded that we still have a long way to go as a nation,” Mr. Rubin said.

Around the world, diplomats at American missions are bearing witness to fresh human rights protests — but ones aimed at the United States, not at oppressive leaders of foreign countries.

Hundreds of people have protested at the U.S. Embassy in London and the office of the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, to demand racial equality in the United States. Similar demonstrations unfolded outside the American embassies in Paris, Berlin and Copenhagen.

In a statement, the State Department acknowledged challenges that were “difficult to address,” but maintained that the United States is devoted to free speech and assembly and the rule of law.

“The United States is proud of the role we have played in defending and advancing human rights and fundamental freedoms around the world,” the department said. “Governments that take human rights seriously are transparent, and welcome conversations about addressing concerns and making improvements.”

This year, diplomats have already had to grapple with representing a president and government that have been widely criticized for their failures in handling the coronavirus pandemic, which have led to the deaths of more than 100,000 people in the United States — far more than any other nation — and a crippled economy.

Current officials who described frustration and concern in the diplomatic corps spoke only on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution or of endangering their careers. The department is led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who in the last year alone has pushed Mr. Trump to fire the agency’s inspector general and refused to back Foreign Service officers who came under attack from Mr. Trump over the issue of Ukraine.

Former ambassadors and agency officials also spoke about the current difficulties of defending American governance and the legal system to foreign nations, given what is unfolding at home.

“Now of course the whole world can see that many Americans have been systematically denied justice,” said Dana Shell Smith, a former career diplomat and ambassador to Qatar. “Our public diplomacy should embrace more humility than it has had in the past as a result.”

She added, though, that diplomats could seize on the idea “that American people are using our voices to demand change, and that is something that could not happen in so many countries where I served.”

Representative Tom Malinowski, Democrat of New Jersey, who served as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor in the Obama administration, said “the use of the military to violently disperse peaceful protesters in front of the White House was the biggest gift we could possibly have given to Putin or Xi Jinping and to every other dictator around the world who delights in arguing that America’s government is no different than theirs.”

“Most sophisticated dictators don’t argue they’re angels,” he added. “They argue that America is sanctimonious and hypocritical because we do the same things they do.”

Several diplomats pointed to the case of Tianna Spears, a black Foreign Service officer who resigned last year after making repeated — and unheeded — complaints of being harassed by Customs and Border Protection officers when entering the United States from her assigned post in Mexico.

In a blog post widely shared among diplomats, Ms. Spears described being accused of looking like a drug dealer and carrying counterfeit identification, including her diplomatic passport. At one point, she recounted, one American border officer told her to “look at the ground” when talking to a man.

“How many Black women have fled the State Department in the last five years?” she wrote. “I felt angry that this career opportunity I dreamed of since I was 19 was something I had to flee to save myself.”

Customs and Border Protection, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security, did not respond to requests for comment. In a brief interview Wednesday night, Ms. Spears said she believed the border security agency never acted on her complaints.

In this moment, top State Department officials and sitting ambassadors have yet to publicly address institutional discrimination in their corps, as some military commanders have done this week.

In December, Congress passed the Global Fragility Act to help certain nations prevent violence and conflict, with $1.15 billion in U.S. aid over the next five years. The State Department has an entire bureau devoted to promoting human rights issues. Each year it releases an assessment of nations’ commitments to civil liberties, freedoms and rule of law.

The department’s annual review does not evaluate the United States on human rights issues, but other international groups do.

In its own annual rating system, the Fund for Peace found that 29 other countries were more stable than the United States in terms of security forces, human rights, government stability, societal grievances and other measures. It concluded that the United States had become increasingly more unstable since 2017.

“Americans can no longer hide behind a vision of U.S. exceptionalism,” seven former career officials at the U.S. Agency for International Development who are now with the Alliance for Peacebuilding wrote in a June 1 letter posted on Medium.

The officials, who helped create an office for conflict management and mitigation at the aid agency during the administration of President George W. Bush, noted that “every country has conflict and grievances.”

But they cited international analyses and other indicators showing that in the United States, there were signs of degrading “peace and security, democracy and trust in institutions.”

In an interview with Fox News last Sunday, Mr. Pompeo expressed condolences to the family of Mr. Floyd, and called the actions of the Minneapolis police officers charged in his killing “abhorrent.”

He also applauded the Trump administration’s response — not only in investigating Mr. Floyd’s death, but also in offering to send military personnel to states partly to stop “violent protesters.”

Mr. Pompeo’s comments came the day before the federal police forcefully cleared peaceful protesters near the White House, so that Mr. Trump could stage a photo opportunity holding a Bible outside a church. A leading bishop and other clergy said they were outraged by the incident.

On Tuesday, Mr. Pompeo met with survivors of the 1989 massacre of peaceful protesters by the Chinese military around Tiananmen Square in Beijing. But in the run-up to Thursday, the 31st anniversary of the massacre, it was images of National Guard personnel and armored vehicles in the streets of the American capital that proliferated online and on television screens around the world.

Chinese officials are using the crises in the United States as ammunition in their rhetorical battles against American diplomats. After Morgan Ortagus, the State Department spokeswoman, expressed concern over Hong Kong, writing on Twitter that “freedom loving people” must “stand with the rule of law and hold to account the Chinese Communist Party,” a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman in Beijing taunted her with Mr. Floyd’s final words: “I can’t breathe.”

”If Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo were deeply damaging, this situation is downright devastating for American diplomacy,” said Brett Bruen, a former career diplomat and director of global engagement on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council.

“Career ambassadors and officials overseas have had to grapple with a lot of hard questions,” he added. “‘How the heck do I explain the excesses in some security forces’ response to peaceful protesters? Worse yet, can I even stomach a defense of the despicable comments by my commander in chief?’”

The United States inadvertently leads by example in a new way: providing homegrown images of antigovernment protests that inspire dissenting citizens overseas. Unrest in America appears to have galvanized antigovernment or pro-equality protests in countries like Iraq, New Zealand and Russia.

Some American embassies have decided to publicly embrace the contradictions.

“We will not try to hide our painful struggle, and instead believe that honest public debate will help us emerge better and stronger,” the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, said in a statement.

The U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, announced, “Law enforcement officials must be held accountable in every country.”

Alex L. Wang, a law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles who has advocated an independent judiciary in China, said the crises in the United States meant American officials had less credibility to single out abusive behavior elsewhere. “It looks hypocritical when they criticize acts of violence against Hong Kong protesters, even as they call for violence against peaceful protesters at home,” he said.

“The right answer,” he added, “is not for the U.S. to stand down as to rights violations abroad, but to uphold rights at home as well.”

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