Why It Is the Best and Worst Time to Be IRF Ambassador

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: Judd Birdsall

It is the best of times and the worst of times for Rabbi David Saperstein to serve as the next US ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom (IRF). Let me give four reasons for this dualistic assessment.

First, the reputation of US IRF policy is at a low point, which means there’s really nowhere to go but up. The Obama Administration has offered robust rhetoric on religious freedom, but over the past six years it has struggled to turn that rhetoric into reality.

The IRF ambassadorship, the face of US IRF policy, has been vacant for nearly four of those years, and a continued vacancy would have been preferable to the utterly vacuous two-year tenure of Suzan Johnson Cook. A professional motivational speaker, Johnson Cook was unable to motivate any foreign government to improve its religious freedom practices.   

The next two years look much brighter. By all accounts, Saperstein has the knowledge, experience, connections, and charisma to do the job well. As the long-time director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Saperstein has been a key leader of the IRF movement since the 1990s. During the Clinton Administration, he served as the first chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. In 2009, President Obama appointed him to serve on the White House Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. In short, Saperstein is supremely qualified for his next post.

Whereas Johnson Cook’s resignation was greeted with a collective sigh of relief, Saperstein’s appointment was greeted with a chorus of bipartisan enthusiasm. The GOP-controlled Senate has no excuse not to confirm Saperstein ASAP.   

Second, the Obama Administration has made great strides in mainstreaming religious engagement as a diplomatic priority, but much of that activity now takes place outside the IRF Office. In just the past few years, a range of initiatives—the State Department’s Forum on Religion & Global Affairs, Interfaith Working Group, Religion & Foreign Policy Working Group, and the White House-led Interagency Working Group on Religion & Global Affairs—have generated significant intellectual and bureaucratic momentum around religious engagement broadly conceived. As a result, the White House promulgated a national strategy on religious engagement, the Foreign Service Institute developed a course on religion and foreign policy for American diplomats, and the State Department created the Office of Faith-based Community Initiatives (FBCI).

Saperstein now faces a different bureaucratic landscape than his predecessors. It’s imperative that he works closely with FBCI and the constellation of religion-related offices and initiatives, demonstrating that the IRF Office has much to offer to the broader religious engagement effort. Environments of genuine religious liberty are both the root and a fruit of constructive US engagement with diverse faith communities.   

Third, with just two years left on the clock, the Obama Administration may want to play it safe on IRF issues and coast to the finish, or it may be willing to take some risks and go for broke. The former is more likely, and yet there is precedent for shaking things up on issues of religion and diplomacy at the tail end of an administration. In 2007 and 2008, after years of failed outreach to the Muslim world, the Bush Administration switched gears. The State Department created the position of the Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and shifted the focus of much of its Muslim outreach from promoting America’s image to discrediting violent extremists.   

Saperstein can shake things up. The administration’s willingness to appoint a seasoned, vocal, high-powered leader is already a promising sign.

Fourth, the need for religious freedom and tolerance is painfully obvious around the world, but US policies toward countries with the most egregious persecution are decided well above the IRF Office. In Iraq, North Korea, China, and myriad other counties, America’s immediate strategic economic and security interests often conflict with assertive IRF advocacy. That’s just the nature of the beast. Yes, religious freedom is a distinctive emphasis of US foreign policy, but the US government is not a religious freedom NGO—nor should it be.

The challenge for Saperstein is to make the hard power case for IRF. In its remarks and reports, the Obama Administration has already made the linkages between religious freedom and stability, security, and development. As a respected, well-connected veteran of religion and international affairs, Saperstein is positioned to further develop those arguments in senior-level policy discussions.

And it is important that he win the right to be included in those discussions. On paper, according to the IRF Act of 1998, the ambassador is the “principal advisor” on IRF issues to the president and secretary of state. In practice, the ambassador has always been treated like a deputy in the human rights bureau. Saperstein can change that dynamic. His close ties to this White House are a major asset.

On balance, I am optimistic. Yes, Saperstein will face serious historical, bureaucratic, political, and strategic challenges. But the Obama Administration has finally found the right person to tackle those challenges. With religious persecution around the world getting worse, US IRF policy can, must, and will get better. 

Judd Birdsall is a former US diplomat currently completing his Ph.D. in International Relations at the University of Cambridge. 

This piece was originally authored on November 10, 2014 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. 

Permanent Link: https://www.religiousfreedominstitute.org/cornerstone/2016/7/5/why-it-is-the-best-and-worst-time-to-be-irf-ambassador