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OPINION | STEPHEN KINZER

The State Department’s naughty lists

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks during an appearance with Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj at the State Department on Dec. 1.

By Stephen Kinzer

Most of us carry lists in our heads. They help us deal with the world. We have mental lists of people we like or dislike, foods we enjoy or avoid, and politicians we admire or detest. This is a useful impulse for individuals, but it is dangerous for nations. Over the last few decades, the United States has become an inveterate list-keeper. Our government compiles and publishes lists in which we rate, evaluate, and judge other countries. No other nation does this so single-mindedly. We are schoolmarm to the world. Even as our own country careens into uncharted political waters, we assume the right to rank other countries according to how fully they meet our lofty standards.

Every year the State Department publishes a report rating each country in the world according to its human rights record. The most recent report says that Botswana oppresses its San minority, that Jordanian leaders do not “take sufficiently strong steps to investigate, prosecute, or punish officials who committed abuses,” and that in Bolivia, “the constitution provides for freedom of association but the government did not respect this right.” American ambassadors around the world dread the day this report appears. It often sets off indignant protest, accompanied by demands to know who made the United States ultimate arbiter of right and wrong across the globe.

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America’s eagerness to judge the rest of the world does not stop with our “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.” Every year, sometimes with great fanfare in Washington and abroad, we issue a variety of other lists. Most are compiled by government agencies under Congressional mandate. One is the “International Religious Freedom Report.” The 2016 edition reports that Muslim girls in Switzerland are refused citizenship if they do not join swimming classes, that Brazil allows “religious intolerance, particularly directed at followers of African-originated religious groups,” and that in Georgia, “lack of effective investigations into crimes motivated by religious hatred remained a major problem.” The State Department also produces a “Trafficking in Persons Report,” which ranks countries according to their adjudged success in suppressing human trafficking. Among our others are a “Major Money Laundering Countries” list, a “Major Illicit Drug Producing and Major Drug-Transit Countries” list, and a “priority watch list” of countries that do not respect intellectual property rights.

The impulse behind this list-keeping is classically American. We imagine our country as above all base motives, not mired in greed or base self-interest, and therefore able to judge others impartially. In fact, the lists we publish are highly politicized. They do not honestly measure countries by objective standards. Evidence on which they are based is often manipulated in order to make some countries look good and others bad. Two recent examples reflect this hypocrisy.

First was President Trump’s decision to add North Korea to the list called “State Sponsors of Terrorism.” He offered no evidence that North Korea sponsors terrorism overseas. Adding it to this scary-sounding list, where it joins Iran, Syria, and Sudan, was just a way of lashing out against an enemy. This may actually increase the possibility of war by making diplomacy more difficult. Most revealingly, as the United States placed North Korea on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, it kept Pakistan and Saudi Arabia off — although evidence against them is far stronger. The process is simple: Exaggerate evidence against countries we dislike so we can place them on the terror list, and ignore evidence against those we like in order to keep them off.

Also last month, the State Department set off a rebellion in the ranks by politicizing its list of countries that use child soldiers. Findings by American diplomats confirmed that Iraq, Myanmar, and Afghanistan used child soldiers last year, but the State Department refused to add them to the list. Doing so would have made it more difficult for us to continue equipping their armies. A group of dissenting diplomats warned that this decision “risks marring the credibility” of State Department lists. It does that and more. Many of our lists and “country reports” are manipulated to promote the American political agenda. The world sees this and resents it.

This resentment comes not only from the content of these lists and reports. It comes from the larger fact that the United States considers itself empowered to issue them. Propelled by a sense of moral superiority, we have become the world’s scold. We imagine that we have found standards by which nations may be judged — and that we are qualified to be the virtuous judges. Armed with this certainty, we set out like avenging missionaries to “name and shame” those we consider evil-doers. When they object, we take their protest as proof that they are indeed miscreants. Yet none of our “country reports” includes a section on the United States. We do not rate our own human rights record, nor would we be disposed to take seriously any rating produced by another country.

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In Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera The Mikado, the Lord High Executioner sings that he’s “got a little list / Of society offenders who might well be underground / And who never would be missed.” All governments have lists like that. They should remain in the private thoughts of diplomats and statesmen. Denouncing the sins of others feels good. It is not productive diplomacy.

Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.