In speaking to the UN General Assembly, President Trump boasted that his Administration had “accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country” (Vox.com) in less than two years. Laughter echoed through the chamber. (Politico)
Ridicule is the least of the costs the Trump Administration has incurred. Its ongoing deliberate departure from the generous and far-sighted foreign policy that the United States pursued under both Republican and Democratic Presidents since the conclusion of World War II has undermined the interests, alliances, and reputation of the United States.
Following World War II, American foreign policy connected the United States to the world’s nations and peoples by championing human rights, linking their economies through markets and trade, and promoting security for free peoples across the globe. No more. Not under President Trump.
President Trump’s address before the UN General Assembly made clear that the United States will continue to abandon the liberal post-World War II order it did so much to construct. Perhaps none of its policies will have a more damaging human impact than the consequences of the leadership void a retreating United States is now leaving in the area of human rights.
Pre-Trump American leadership in advancing human rights was bipartisan. Both parties embraced that cause, because it had its roots in the American Declaration of Independence which proclaimed:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government…
There are three key points. First, every person enjoys certain “unalienable rights.” Second, no government may deny any person of those basic rights. Third, any government that does so is illegitimate.
State sovereignty only extends to legitimate governments and legitimate purposes. Thus, a government that engages in human rights abuses cannot gain immunity from invoking a defense of state sovereignty. That was the shared understanding of all post-World War II American Administrations.
That understanding has now been erased by the demands of the Trump Administration’s ethno-nationalist populism. A de facto “Trump Doctrine” is now emerging from what is otherwise a chaotic foreign policy. The core tenet of the nascent “Trump Doctrine” concerns an expansive definition of state sovereignty that puts any country beyond reproach when it comes to the management of its own internal or domestic affairs. Trump outlined that thesis in his speech to the UN General Assembly:
I honor the right of every nation in this room to pursue its own customs, beliefs, and traditions. The United States will not tell you how to live or work or worship.
We only ask that you honor our sovereignty in return.
Put another way, the United States will leave you alone and it only asks that you leave it alone in return. In other words, nations are largely free to do what they wish within their borders so long as their policies don’t affect the United States (or their neighbors). State sovereignty renders them immune to critique or outside consequences for their domestic conduct. The U.S. will no longer involve itself in those matters.
Later in the speech, Trump did make what appeared to be somewhat of a departure from that rule when he urged the world to call for “the restoration of democracy in Venezuela.” Yet, just prior to his appeal, Trump complained that “more than 2 million people” had fled Venezuela. Undoubtedly, some of those Venezuelans sought asylum in the United States.
Prior Administrations placed the protection of basic human liberties above state sovereignty. In his September 21, 1987 address to the UN General Assembly, President Ronald Reagan explicitly rejected the notion that state sovereignty shielded nations from scrutiny. Reagan explained (American Presidency Project):
Freedom in Nicaragua or Angola or Afghanistan or Cambodia or Eastern Europe or South Africa or anyplace else on the globe is not just an internal matter. Some time ago the Czech dissident writer Vaclav Havel warned the world that “respect for human rights is the fundamental condition and the sole genuine guarantee of true peace.” And Andrei Sakharov in his Nobel lecture said: “I am convinced that international confidence, mutual understanding, disarmament, and international security are inconceivable without an open society with freedom of information, freedom of conscience, the right to publish, and the right to travel and choose the country in which one wishes to live.” Freedom serves peace; the quest for peace must serve the cause of freedom.
During the preceding Administration, President Barack Obama reaffirmed that the rights of individuals matter in a September 28, 2015 speech before the UN General Assembly. He declared (Obamawhitehouse.archives.gov):
There are those who argue that the ideals enshrined in the U.N. charter are unachievable or out of date — a legacy of a postwar era not suited to our own. Effectively, they argue for a return to the rules that applied for most of human history and that pre-date this institution: …that the rights of individuals don’t matter…
On this basis, we see some major powers assert themselves in ways that contravene international law. We see an erosion of the democratic principles and human rights that are fundamental to this institution’s mission…
But I stand before you today believing in my core that we, the nations of the world, cannot return to the old ways of conflict and coercion. We cannot look backwards. We live in an integrated world — one in which we all have a stake in each other’s success.
On Tuesday, September 25, Trump addressed world leaders and diplomats in New York. As he boasted, the world laughed.
That was then. Should the Trump Administration succeed in redefining America in its ethno-nationalist populist image, the world may well weep at what humanity has lost.