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Blinken told US diplomats they can openly admit US flaws to other countries, report says

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken participates in the UN Security Council Open Debate on Multilateralism, from the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. on May 7, 2021. (State Department Photo by Freddie Everett)
July 21, 2021

In a cable to U.S. diplomatic outposts around the world leaked last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged U.S. diplomatic personnel to put greater emphasis on human rights messaging, and that those diplomats be willing to “confront” America’s own flaws “openly and transparently” in those countries.

In his cable, obtained by Politico and reported Friday, Blinken told diplomats they should emphasize U.S. support of movements for democratic reform in key strategic countries and close U.S. partners; advise citizens of other countries on the means to combat surveillance techniques while promoting their access to information; combat corruption in those countries; and prevent abuses by security forces overseas, including those that the U.S. supplies with weapons and training.

In formulating how the U.S. will navigate that messaging to countries with human rights abuse issues, including its own allies, Blinken wrote that U.S. diplomats should make “clear that we ask no more of other countries than we ask of ourselves.”

“That means we acknowledge our imperfections. We don’t sweep them under the rug,” Blinken added. “We confront them openly and transparently.”

Blinken acknowledged claiming U.S. faults before other countries could be “painful, even ugly,” but said that messaging strategy “helps disarm critics and skeptics who would use our imperfect record at home to undercut our global leadership on these issues.” 

The new style of messaging could see some criticism in the U.S. During President Barack Obama’s presidency, Republican politicians accused him of going on “apology tours” to countries around the world. During the 2012 presidential debates between Obama and then-Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Romney said Obama had embarked on an “apology tour” that only served to embolden Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

During the Biden administration’s own first face-to-face meeting with Chinese diplomats, a Chinese official told Blinken that U.S. human rights problems are “deep-seated” and did not come up only in the last four years, like the Black Lives Matter movement.

Blinken responded during that March meeting that the U.S. “acknowledges that we’re not perfect, we make mistakes, we have reversals, we take steps back.”

“But what we’ve done throughout our history is to confront those challenges openly, publicly, transparently, not trying to ignore them, not trying to pretend they don’t exist, not trying to sweep them under a rug,” Blinken told his Chinese counterparts. “And sometimes it’s painful, sometimes it’s ugly, but each and every time, we have come out stronger, better, more united as a country.”

Last week, Blinken formally invited the United Nations Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism and the UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues to come to the U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) responded to Blinken’s invitation during a Fox News appearance in which he said, “If you invite the U.N. to tell us how racist we are, they should look at the situation in Cuba, borderline epic catastrophe spiraling out of control. Why aren’t they focused on that?”

One senior State Department official, who spoke with Politico, defended Blinken’s new messaging strategy. The official said that by promoting the idea of showing some humility, he believes the United States will be stronger and more credible in the long term. The official said that claiming faults on behalf of the U.S., doesn’t stop diplomats from also highlighting American successes.

“We still have a lot to be proud of, we still have a lot of faith in our resilience, we still have confidence in our ability to work through these things,” the official said.

Blinken’s cable did say “in some instances we will need to adjust the pressure we apply to avoid a rupture in the relationship” before adding “but there is no relationship or situation where we will stop raising human rights concerns.”