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Politics and Plans for State

Politics and Plans for State

Can We Talk?

Secretary of State Pompeo’s July 8 announcement of a new Commission on Unalienable Rights, alongside Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s Plan to Rebuild the State Department, illustrate the domination of foreign policy discourse by politics.  The political process chooses ultimate policymakers, so politics has a proper and large role.  However, foreign policy is what a nation does as a singular actor.  Can policy arising from today’s discourse paint America as a coherent entity?

Consider the two announcements.  Sen. Warren’s plan, a campaign document, shows policy discussion fully appropriated to serve political tropes.  Where it calls for “diplomacy first” and would double the size of the foreign service, Warren voices the purpose of ensuring that “our foreign policy … not be run out of the Pentagon.”  The discussion of an expanded foreign service focuses on ethnic and gender diversity. Finally, the plan calls for professionalization of Ambassadors, defining that as ending the awarding of Ambassadorships to wealthy campaign donors.  In short, the priorities for State, while couched in references to China, budgets, and national interests, voice generic Democratic Party sentiments: against the military, against the wealthy, and in favor of identity interests.  

Secretary Pompeo’s commission requires a bit of explanation, as it plays out inside foreign policy practice rather than the campaign trail.  As announced, the commission is created to repair a “blurring (in) the distinction between unalienable rights and ad hoc rights granted by governments.” The blurring arose after the Cold War, giving rise to ideas such as economic and social rights, which can look like claims of interest rather than protections against overt repression.  The new rights have, in this blogger’s impression as a sometime embassy human rights officer, received growing emphasis in the U.S. Country Reports on Human Rights , no doubt influenced by the report is a formal submission to Congress.  

Here, in fact, is where the Commission will have its impact.  As announced, it will not “opine on policy (but) generate a serious debate on human rights.”  The direction of Pompeo’s interest is against an “an industry (of) ‘rights talk’” that “has become a constant element of our domestic political discourse.”  In effect he charges this State Department body to implement the generic Republican sentiment against special interests’ agendas.   

This is the prerogative that comes with winning an election.  So, imagining a transition from the Trump to a Warren Administration, Pompeo’s Commission will disappear and identity will be enshrined in the new foreign service’s very makeup, as one effect. The rest of the polarized progressive / conservative standoff will likewise play out, as it has, in less and less muted form, in recent decades.  With the next change of party in office, it will all swing back.  But if policy simply swings with electoral outcomes, foreign relations disconnects will grow increasingly unavoidable over time.  The world probably expects this already; what do they see the United States standing for at heart?  The answer is always: whatever suits their policymakers, whoever they are and whatever their motives.  But America is not painting its own picture.

In announcing his commission, Secy. Pompeo invokes the “unalienable rights.”  But the commission’s charge reflects just one interpretation.  The Declaration of Independence’s “self evident” truths are abstract.  Any political side can invoke them, witness the titles of two books that support left and right, respectively.  Jill LePore’s “These Truths” focuses on African Americans’, Native Americans and womens’ struggles to realize their unalienable rights.  Matthew Spalding’s “We Still Hold These Truths” argues against the transgressions of social science-based rule and the discarding of rights’ Christian roots.  

Both LePore and Spalding start with the language of the Declaration, which suggests where America’s basic nature and fundamental interests lie.  Can we put political interpretations in the larger perspective?  Can we replace electoral posturing and incumbent pre-emption with considered dialogue?  Can U.S. discourse start with common agreement on common fundamentals?  Would this allow open parsing of differences rather than the “talking past each other” of today’s politics?  Can American discourse underpin policy that transcends the partisan interpretations, and paints America as a coherent actor?



George Paik

George F. Paik is a former political affairs officer in the U.S. Foreign Service, as well as a twenty year veteran of U.S. capital markets. He is a current board member and former chair of the World Affairs Forum (a sister to FPA in the World Affairs Councils of America network) in Stamford, CT. His work as a diplomat straddled the fall of the USSR, and included political analysis, human rights, trade affairs, and environmental policy, in postings were in Brazil and Trinidad, and in the Department of State. Financial experience includes stints with Mellon Bank, Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co. and People’s United Bank. He currently holds the position of Managing Director at Lord Capital, LLC, a firm focused on international trade finance.

Paik graduated from Harvard University with a BA in Social Studies; he also holds an MBA in Finance from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He counts ten years playing Rugby, with club mates from countries around the globe, as part of his international experience.