US diplomats struggle to defend democracy abroad as criticism mounts at home

Demonstrators at a rally near the White House protest police brutality and racism, on June 6, 2020, in Washington, DC. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - 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 past 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 Mr George Floyd and US President Donald 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 US 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, Iran and North Korea - 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," Mr Eric Rubin, a career diplomat and former ambassador to Bulgaria, wrote in a letter on Wednesday (June 3) 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 US missions are bearing witness to fresh human rights protests - but ones aimed at the US, not at oppressive leaders of foreign countries.

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

More than 160 British lawmakers have called for ending exports of riot gear, tear gas and rubber bullets to the US - similar to a ban that Mr Trump and Congress placed last year on products to Hong Kong.

In a statement, the State Department acknowledged challenges that were "difficult to address," but maintained that the US 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 criticised for their failures in handling the coronavirus pandemic, which have led to the deaths of more than 100,000 people in the US - 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 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 US 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 Ms 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, who served as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labour 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 Ms 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 US 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 on 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 past week. After this article was posted online on Saturday, the department's South and Central Asia bureau announced on Twitter that it was committed to "promoting inclusivity" - but no official's name was attached to the statement.

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

"Americans can no longer hide behind a vision of US exceptionalism," seven former career officials at the US 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 US, 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 Mr Floyd's family, 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 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 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 armoured vehicles in the streets of the US capital that proliferated online and on television screens around the world.

Chinese officials are using the crises in the US as ammunition in their rhetorical battles against US diplomats, which Mr Pompeo denounced as "laughable propaganda" on Saturday.

After Ms 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."

Alex L. Wang, a law professor at UCLA who advocates rule of law in China, said the crises in the US meant American officials had less credibility to single out abusive behaviour elsewhere.

"It looks hypocritical when they criticise 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 US to stand down as to rights violations abroad, but to uphold rights at home as well."

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