Shadow Government

3 Things to Consider When Picking the Next Religious Freedom Ambassador

This month marks the 15-year anniversary of the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRF Act), which among other things created the position of ambassador at large for international religious freedom and an office of the same name at the State Department. Coincidentally, this month will also witness a new vacancy in the position, ...

Photo: JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images

This month marks the 15-year anniversary of the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRF Act), which among other things created the position of ambassador at large for international religious freedom and an office of the same name at the State Department. Coincidentally, this month will also witness a new vacancy in the position, with the impending departure of Ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook who has filled the role for the last 17 months. So it seems fitting to take stock of the law, and also offer some suggestions for what Barack Obama’s administration and Secretary of State John Kerry should look for in picking a new ambassador.

How has the IRF Act fared? I was one of the congressional staff authors of the original bill, and my own evaluation is ambivalent and leans negative. If one only judges results, the world has certainly answered in the negative. Globally, religious persecution and religious intolerance are as prevalent now as they were 15 years ago. According to the authoritative Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, religious repression has actually increased in recent years, to the point that "three-quarters of the world’s approximately 7 billion people live in countries with high government restrictions on religion or high social hostilities involving religion."

If considered as a counterfactual — how would things be if the IRF Act had never been passed — the record is more mixed. At a minimum, religious freedom promotion is now institutionalized as an official policy of the U.S. government. The State Department’s annual report on religious freedom is widely acclaimed as a judicious, sophisticated, comprehensive resource. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has been led by a diverse, bipartisan array of luminaries and continues to be a vigorous independent watchdog and advisory body.

On the negative ledger, the IRF Act’s "countries of particular concern" mechanism has been employed in rather stale ways, instead of as a creative instrument of diplomacy and, when necessary, of punitive measures as originally intended. The Office of International Religious Freedom itself is subordinated in the State Department’s bureaucracy, rather than reporting directly to the secretary of state as the legislation originally intended. State Department and USAID funding of democracy programs overseas includes only a pittance for religious liberty. Most regrettably, religious freedom promotion is still seen as a boutique, marginal issue of concern only to religious communities and a few zealous activists, rather than having any relation to core foreign-policy interests such as security, peace, and stability.

So the IRF Act has done some good, but could do so much more. Perhaps, as my former State Department colleague Tom Farr (now running the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs) has suggested, it is time for the Senate to hold an oversight hearing evaluating the implementation of the IRF Act, following the one conducted by the House in June. Some legislative updates are in order as well, such as perhaps adopting the tiered ranking system of nations similar to that employed by the trafficking-in-persons office.

Before the Obama administration appointed Ambassador Johnson Cook, I had offered these recommendations here and here of the qualities that a religious freedom ambassador should have and how the policy should be pursued. While Johnson Cook brought energy and devotion to the job, she faced several hindrances, including the office’s tertiary location in the State Department’s bureaucracy, the Obama administration’s relative indifference to religious freedom, and her own lack of foreign-policy experience.

As the Obama administration and Kerry consider their pick for the next ambassador, here are three qualities and principles that should guide the selection. I hope these considerations will also factor into the Senate’s advise-and-consent deliberations on the eventual nominee.

  • Pick a diplomat, not a cleric. Since 1998, all three IRF ambassadors had backgrounds in religious ministry. Fortunately two of them (Bob Seiple and John Hanford) also had extensive policy experience. This is not to say anything against clergy. Some of my best friends are ministers (seriously), and people with backgrounds in religious work often excel in government work. Rather, we need to avoid implicitly making religious ministry a prerequisite for the IRF ambassador position. The only prerequisite should be foreign-policy experience.
  • Focus on policy, not religious liaison. This point follows the first one. The Office of International Religious Freedom and especially the ambassador are charged with the diplomatic task of promoting religious freedom. It is not the primary function of this office to do liaison or outreach to religious communities. The State Department now has a separate Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives for the outreach function, headed by the capable Shaun Casey. The next IRF ambassador at large should focus on foreign-policy making and, while cooperating with the Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives, leave the religious liaison work to the latter.
  • Think stature and cooperation. Currently the Office of International Religious Freedom exists in the worst of all bureaucratic worlds: buried far from the top and isolated from other relevant bureaus. The IRF ambassador position needs to be elevated in stature (to report to the secretary of state, and be an "S/ slash" in State Department-speak), but the ambassador also must work cooperatively with related bureaus and offices. Primarily this will be the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor (hopefully soon to be Tom Malinowski, if the Senate confirms him as it should), but also the regional bureaus, coordinator for counterterrorism, etc.

Why does any of this matter? Look no further than the Middle East, where the ongoing strife and political turmoil across multiple nations is in large part a religious freedom question: Can the nations of the Middle East develop constitutional and cultural protections for religious pluralism that provide political space for religious minorities and reformist Muslims? (For example, influential Sunni Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s recent turn toward increased militancy bodes ill, and other Sunni leaders need to have the religious freedom to speak out against Qaradawi’s theology). Or look at the resurgence and proliferation of al Qaeda-affiliated jihadi groups, which represents the continuing U.S. failure to develop a comprehensive, effective counterradicalization strategy, of which religious freedom must be an integral part. Or look to China, where brittle authoritarianism and growing corruption are coupled with religious repression, and where the possibility of peaceful reform depends in part on allowing independent religious groups to strengthen civil society.

In short, to borrow a biblical phrase, when it comes to global religious freedom challenges, the harvest is plenty but the workers are few. I hope the Obama White House sends a capable ambassador into the harvest fields soon.

Will Inboden is executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

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