The United States declared its independence based on the idea that all people shared “unalienable rights.” Drafting a constitution that safeguarded the basic rights of free individuals was a focus of its Constitutional Convention. Following the end of World War II, the United States played a leading role in constructing a world order built on, among other things, a “respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms” for all persons as set forth in the United Nations Charter (Avalon).
The United States also persevered through a nearly five decade-long Cold War. During that time, the existential threat posed by the nuclear-armed Soviet Union created temptations for American accommodation. The United States did not abandon its core values.
As the United States entered the 1980s, it was confronted with a grim scorecard of Soviet and Communist gains from the preceding decade. North Vietnam had conquered South Vietnam. The Khmer Rouge had gained control of Cambodia and carried out a genocide. The Soviet Union had expanded its reach in Africa. The Soviet Union had installed a dictatorship in Afghanistan. Freedom appeared to be imperiled. Still, the United States embraced its advocacy of human rights.
A March 1981 State Department paper that laid out the nation’s foreign policy principles spoke of the important weight the Reagan Administration placed on human rights. That paper stated:
This Administration is determined to pursue a vigorous and humane foreign policy designed to protect the integrity and independence of the United States and that of its allies. At the same time, we will seek to develop a world community that respects diversity and fosters peaceful relations among states. In making our decisions, we will take into account their impact on freedom, dignity, and human rights.
Indeed, it is our intention to broaden and deepen the concept of human rights which too often has been limited to a narrow range of specific violations by governments against their own people. Assaults on the integrity of the person, such as torture, prolonged imprisonment without due process, exile under brutal conditions, and the denial of emigration are always reprehensible. But we must also recognize that human rights are seriously violated, and on a much larger scale, by direct or indirect aggression, the imposition of foreign control over other peoples, external subversion, genocide, and terrorism. Seen in this perspective, human rights are an inescapable concern in all our foreign policy deliberations.
That was then. That was not Donald Trump’s America.
Donald Trump’s America has taken a radically different course. Under the Trump Administration, human rights are, at best, an afterthought. At worst, they are a steep barrier to the international relationships that the President values. Think Russia. Think North Korea. Think Saudi Arabia.
On the world stage, the Trump Administration has undercut the nation’s vital relationships in treating longstanding allies as foes. He has initiated trade wars. He has done all this, because he has overturned the nation’s ideals for an empty, divisive, and amoral populist framework. His soft treatment of Saudi Arabia following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul provides perhaps the defining example of the Trump worldview.
Under any past Democratic or Republican Administration, the state-sponsored murder of a journalist by Saudi Arabia—likely with the knowledge and possibly even support of that country’s Crown Prince and heir to the throne, Mohammed bin Salman or “MBS”—would have drawn an immediate and severe U.S. reaction. After all, that brutal slaying offended numerous fundamental liberties all past American Administrations held as sacrosanct. Those liberties include freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
But not President Trump. Not his Administration.
Indeed, President Trump even concocted an improbable account that could ultimately help Saudi Arabia manufacture an alibi for the vicious crime. The October 16, 2018 edition of The New York Times reported:
The Trump administration pushed back on Tuesday against rising condemnation of Saudi Arabia and showed support for its crown prince, who has been linked to the disappearance and possible murder of a leading dissident journalist inside a Saudi consulate in Turkey.
…Mr. Trump said after speaking with King Salman that perhaps “rogue killers” had been involved.
It is inconceivable that any other Administration would have taken such a position. But for Trump, such thinking is actually par for the course. It is merely an extension of the President’s longstanding thought. In the March/April 2018 edition of Foreign Affairs, Sarah Margon, Washington Director of Human Rights Watch observed:
No U.S. president has spoken about human rights the way Donald Trump has. During the campaign, he praised Saddam Hussein for his approach to counterterrorism in Iraq…
As president, he has kept at it. Last April, he chose to congratulate Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for winning a disputed referendum that expanded his authoritarian rule. In a call that same month, he spoke to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whose bloody campaign under the guise of a “war on drugs” has taken the lives of over 12,000 Filipinos. Trump praised Duterte for doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem.”
Such words and acts have consequences. Margon explained:
When it comes to human rights, symbolism matters, and under this administration, human rights activists have been made to feel as though they aren’t important. The president and his top national security officials have met with very few frontline activists and have held very few meetings with civil society before or during overseas trips—a practice that previous presidents often used so as to hear directly from ordinary citizens about the challenges they were facing.
Words matter, too, and Trump’s fulsome praise of strongmen, many of whom he has hosted at the White House with great fanfare and little condemnation, has been taken by many as permission for brutality.
Today, Donald Trump’s America can no longer credibly advance human rights on the world stage. The combination of the gigantic moral void it has created in stripping human rights from its foreign policy agenda and the terrible legacy it is constructing from periodic abuses of its own, including the forced separation of children from undocumented immigrant parents earlier this year, has emboldened authoritarian regimes. Those regimes have calculated that the risk of American consequences for their pursuing measures to strengthen their grip on power, silence dissent, and punish political opposition has diminished markedly.
MBS may well have acted with just such a calculation in mind. To date, the Trump Administration has not upset his thinking.
Donald Trump’s America is no longer a moral beacon. It is no longer a force for advancing and protecting human freedom and dignity. It is evolving into a barrier that impedes human freedom and dignity.
Should President Trump’s amoral worldview, illiberal policies, and indifference to human rights abuses become entrenched in public policy and, worse, in the thinking of the broader American populace, the American Experiment would end in tragedy. Then, the United States would become just another historical example of a country that eventually lost its way after it had abandoned its founding ideals.
That great national and human tragedy that would be produced by such an outcome can still be averted. However, the opportunity to do so could be limited to as few as one or two electoral cycles. Meanwhile, the clock is running. Worse, there are no “time outs.”