With former Vice President Joe Biden leading President Donald Trump by significant margins in recent polls, there is understandable focus on the changes in policy across nearly every conceivable issue that a new administration would usher in. But prudent transition planners should also be considering how to restructure the federal government in a way that will create the bureaucratic mechanisms empowered to deliver those changes.
This will be an enormous task. President Trump has hollowed out or weakened by overt politicization much of the federal bureaucracy, and recently announced plans to double-down his assault on the civil service if given a second term. Rebuilding trust with the American public, recruiting strong candidates to government service, and improving the United States’ damaged image abroad will require a massive effort.
Reforming bureaucratic structures to improve America’s protection of democracy and individual rights domestically and internationally is, of course, only one component of this larger challenge. Yet with America undertaking a reckoning on matters ranging from racial justice to the integrity of elections, with anti-democratic forces ascendant globally and a sense that a “democracy agenda” has never been more important, now is the time to fundamentally reform how the executive branch addresses the transnational matter of upholding human rights and advancing democracy at home and abroad.
Here’s our overall advice: as a starting point, go big at the White House, where significant change requires no legislation, and thus can be implemented quickly and effectively. The recommendation outlined below provides a blueprint for relatively rapid and impactful executive-led changes to advance human rights and democracy, and would complement other steps to take in the first 100 days to more fully live our values, as well as the larger pro-human rights agenda that each of us has written about recently.
Create a Hybrid White House Democracy and Human Rights Coordination Team
Traditionally, administrations of both political parties have staffed the Executive Office of the President (EOP) with subordinate bodies largely mapped onto a worldview that divides domestic affairs and foreign policy. Thus, for instance, modern presidents have been staffed by both a National Security Council (NSC, which is a statutorily-created body focused on national security and foreign policy) and a Domestic Policy Council (DPC, which is focused on domestic, not-security related matters). The staff of these entities rarely overlap, and in recent administrations do not have a formalized coordinating mechanism, relying instead on visibility into both arenas by the president’s most senior advisors.
This principle is not absolute. Several high-priority topics managed by the White House – economic policy, homeland security, pandemic response – have at times resulted in bureaucratic structures that bridge the domestic-international split. In the human rights arena, there is also a long-standing awareness that a handful of issues – most notably asylum policy, refugee admissions, and human trafficking – stand at the cross-section of the domestic and international.
Yet for reasons that no longer make sense, the overwhelming majority of human rights policymaking remains essentially siloed within the federal government: Those focused on rights like free expression and universal suffrage abroad, for instance, have little or no overlap with those working toward similar ends within the United States, including at the White House.
The negative effects of this dynamic have been compounding for decades and burst into the open during the Trump years. As observers across the political spectrum have long held, America’s standing to lead on human rights abroad begins with a solid foundation at home. Indeed, that’s why America’s ability to advance human rights overseas is at a nadir, in part, because its president attacks journalists, judges, and elections here at home. But the United States’ ability to promote human rights globally is also significantly limited by the increasing recognition of historic, unrectified abridgements of rights within Americans’ own communities.
As a result of this dynamic, many U.S.-based, non-governmental, internationally-oriented advocacy organizations are recognizing that they need to focus more energy on getting America’s own house in order. But there has not yet been a serious grappling with the effects of these changes within the U.S. government or a similar axial shift.
A substantial change in the machinery of the White House alone will not solve this problem, of course. But altering mindsets at the pinnacle of national policymaking to unify the democracy and rights agenda will have downstream effects that could lead to additional, beneficial changes to the architecture of federal governance. Reforming the way federal institutions address crosscutting issues—from the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, which integrated the planning and operations of the Department of Defense, to the Homeland Security Act of 2002, which created the Department of Homeland Security—requires serious study and legislation. Integrating domestic-international policymaking within the EOP can provide a model for how similar legislation might (or might not) prove worthwhile with respect to protecting democracy and rights both at home and overseas.
Like several of its predecessors, the Obama administration included within its NSC staff a “directorate” (i.e., office) tasked with coordinating federal policy concerning human rights and multilateral diplomacy, generally led by an official holding the rank of Special Assistant to the President (SAP). For largely idiosyncratic reasons, Obama’s NSC split with earlier models and also included a separate directorate, also led by a SAP-level official, which was tasked with overseas democracy promotion and global development. Under the Trump administration these functions have been allowed to atrophy. Since 2017, the NSC has maintained a skeletal directorate titled “international organizations and alliances” that has ostensibly managed human rights and democracy policy but in practical terms has done very little (regrettably, the office might be best known for the extracurricular activities of one of its former heads).
If Trump loses in November, the next administration should take a significantly different approach. Biden has staked many of his discrete policy proposals on the ideas that most top-tier challenges are transnational; that democracy at home and abroad is vital, worth defending, and in need of strengthening; and that America can only achieve its goals if it overcomes its divisions. One of Biden’s signature foreign policy proposals to date, a pledge to host a “Summit for Democracy” during his first year in office, expressly blends U.S. foreign policy with the need to strengthen democracy at home. In the same vein, his EOP should reflect a new way of thinking on democracy and human rights policy by demonstrably uplifting these issues within the White House and melding the international with the domestic.
First, elevate rank. As Lin-Manuel Miranda fans know well, to affect decision-making in government, you need to be in the room where it happens. Rank matters, because at senior levels, the number of individuals in any particular decision-making meeting dwindles significantly. Modeled on how the Obama NSC approached the head of its International Economic Affairs office, a future White House could assign the democracy and human rights portfolio to a “coordinator” of Deputy Assistant to the President (DAP) rank (which is senior to a SAP). In so doing, it would immediately differentiate and elevate the position and portfolio above most others within the EOP structure. Moreover, it would send an important signal to departments and agencies convened by the new DAP about the priority placed on these issues by the president.
Second, the coordinator should report to the heads of the NSC, DPC, and National Economic Council (NEC). As the senior-most official expressly tasked with strengthening democracy and human rights (including anti-corruption) at home and abroad, the coordinator should report to the president’s senior national security, domestic policy, and economic policy advisors, and play a leading role in the policy development functions coordinated by their respective staffs. To be sure, the complexity of such a reporting structure will have downsides, but the coordinator’s added value is likely to outweigh any attendant disadvantages. These will be two-fold. First, he or she will elevate the representation of democracy and human rights considerations in key meetings of department deputies and principals. Second, he or she will bring a unique, cross-cutting perspective to these and other policy-making fora, informed by having a foot in each domain.
Third, staff accordingly. As with Obama’s International Economic Affairs structure, a human rights and democracy coordinator should be supported by two or more offices led by SAP-level officials and staffed by a team of director-level experts. Such teams could be organized according to several coherent schema, but would purposefully incorporate issue-experts who reflect a transnational approach to the coordinator’s mission.
Accordingly, one group of directors tasked with overseas human rights, democracy, and development portfolios would serve under the coordinator’s NSC hat and fold into that body’s structure, while another focused on advancing domestic voting rights, asylum and immigration policy, and racial justice matters would serve similarly under the DPC. Added to the mix would be anti-corruption and refugee policy experts, officials dedicated to pulling off Biden’s “Summit for Democracy,” and specialists working to ensure that social media do not further fray democratic societies (all serving under the NSC).
As with the coordinator role itself, this reporting concept is not without its drawbacks. But for an administration committed to the concept of reinforcing diplomatic influence abroad with the power of example at home, the cross-pollination of ideas and outcomes would outweigh additional managerial complexity.
Integrate Democracy Strengthening
Among the many lessons of the past four years, it has become evident that America cannot afford to separate its governance at home from the pursuit of its interests abroad. Re-imagining how the president organizes senior staff to preserve democracy and strengthen human rights protections will not, of course, eliminate the stressors afflicting the United States. But in keeping with a comprehensive strategy incorporating legislative and executive fixes, it can make a difference.
At a minimum, a change at the White House that emphasizes the inherently transnational nature of this work will send a clear signal to America’s externally-oriented federal departments and agencies that a strong foreign policy begins at home. Likewise, it will send a message to domestically-focused agencies that delivering on human rights at home is part of a strategy to reduce polarization and division, making our democracy more resilient against external attacks and challenges. For an administration focused on building back better, this approach should be an essential element in an array of changes to business as usual.