The Saperstein Effect: It Depends on Kerry

As Rabbi David Saperstein is scheduled to be confirmed as the new ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom (IRF), Cornerstone writers will debate the meaning and influence of the office and the policy he will enact.

By: Thomas Farr

Sixteen years ago Congress passed, and President Clinton signed, the International Religious Freedom (IRF) Act. The law requires the United States to incorporate the advancement of religious freedom into its foreign policy. 

At the center of the entities created by the IRF Act is an ambassador-at-large, a very senior diplomatic official whose job is to lead the new initiative as the head of an office at the Department of State. It gives the ambassador the authority to represent the United States in bilateral and multilateral negotiations, and establishes the position as “principal advisor to the President and Secretary of State” on religious freedom. 

So far, so good. The law’s authors assumed that the new official’s ambassadorial title, combined with his “principal” advisor’s role, would ensure status, respect, and resources within the Department of State. At the time this assumption seemed to be confirmed by the Department’s own hierarchy, which ranked ambassadors-at-large above the assistant secretaries who control much of the policy at Foggy Bottom. 

It seemed a good start for a policy urgently needed to counter the scourge of religious persecution, already rising in the 1990s, and to advance religious freedom as a necessary, but often missing, dimension of democratic consolidation. After the turn of the century, when global democratic growth had stalled, in part because of assaults on religious freedom, and Islamist terrorism had made its increasingly destructive presence known, the authors of the IRF Act looked downright prescient. 

But then reality intervened. The State Department, long known as one of the more secular departments of government, proved adept at keeping the new IRF policy and its ambassador under wraps in the bureaucracy at State. The first two ambassadors, under Clinton and Bush respectively, were very able men who each had significant achievements. But neither succeeded in rooting the IRF initiative at State. 

Then came the elections of 2008. Those who thought things couldn’t get much worse had not accounted for the stunning indifference to IRF policy that would be displayed under the new administration. While most senior officials at the State Department were in place within a few months, it took over two years to get the IRF ambassador into her job. By then it was clear to foreign governments and American diplomats alike that international religious freedom was a very low priority for the Obama administration. When she arrived at Foggy Bottom, the new ambassador was buried in the bureaucracy, with no status and few resources. Meanwhile, the global increase in religious persecution and decline in religious freedom moved resolutely ahead. The first Obama ambassador departed the State Department in October 2013, and the job has been vacant since. 

Enter Rabbi David Saperstein. Nominated in July of this year, Saperstein has cleared the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with broad support from across the political and religious spectrum. He awaits confirmation by the full Senate, which—one hopes—will come very soon.

David Saperstein is a very able and savvy man, with decades of experience in Washington, DC. Notwithstanding his liberal political approach to domestic religious freedom issues Saperstein has earned respect among conservatives by convincing them he will work very hard to elevate the status of his office, policy, and position within the State Department. He clearly wants to make a difference in the growing crisis of religious freedom, especially in the Middle East. He has also won their support by assuring them that he will advocate for religious freedom for all religious groups, including those that might oppose him on issues such as abortion or same-sex marriage (no easy undertaking in an administration that has mounted assaults on domestic religious groups over those very issues). In short, many conservatives trust Saperstein even though they disagree with him. This is rare in Washington, DC. 

But can he succeed in the corridors at Foggy Bottom, where daunting obstacles will inevitably work to keep him and his issue in the diplomatic backwaters? Can he convince American diplomats to elevate IRF policy, integrating it into our democracy stabilization, economic growth, and counter terrorism policies? 

There are many factors that must fall into place if Saperstein is to succeed. His position must be elevated within the bureaucracy so that he is seen as a senior, not a mid-level, official. That means Saperstein must report directly to the secretary of state, as do other Ambassadors at Large such as the Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues. He must be permitted to integrate religious freedom into the mainstream of American diplomacy so that it is no longer seen as a boutique issue for religious people. He must be given resources to develop country-based strategies that can stand a chance of actually advancing religious freedom. And he must be permitted to change the training of American diplomats on this issue, training which has improved under this administration, but which remains ad hoc and largely ineffective. 

None of this will happen, however, without the direct support of Secretary of State John Kerry. Kerry, like President Obama, has uttered some fine words on religious freedom. But words are empty if they are not followed by policy action, training, and strategies that can succeed. Along with Rabbi Saperstein, we shall soon see if, in the arena of international religious freedom, this secretary of state has anything more to offer than speeches.

Thomas F. Farr is director of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and Associate Professor of the Practice of Religion and World Affairs at Georgetown’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.

This piece was originally authored on November 13, 2014 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

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