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Trump’s Damning Global Retreat on Human Rights

The administration has already made it abundantly clear that supporting open societies, free speech, and the protection of civilians is of little concern.

Published in: Foreign Policy

With just over two months under his belt as president, Donald Trump’s time in office has been marked by a frenzied pace on domestic issues, with harsh new immigration and explosive health care debates in the foreground. With less hysteria, but equally disconcerting, is a chaotic approach to foreign policy that departs from the long-standing practice of advancing human rights and democratic values ovseas.

Through words and now actions it is clear the Trump administration intends to severely downplay — if not eliminate — the promotion of human rights from its approach to foreign policy. This is a wholesale retreat from the position of every U.S. administration since Jimmy Carter’s. Although there have been inconsistencies and even policies adopted that were antithetical to human rights, every administration has championed their advancement. This norm has become an integral part of U.S. foreign policy not only because supporting human rights, good governance, and the rule of law has enhanced the lives of countless people around the globe, but because it has also been in the U.S. national interest.

Far from being the check on this agenda that many had hoped for, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been one of its primary enablers. Although his moves have not been particularly dramatic, an accumulation of smaller steps sends a clear and dangerous signal, especially with bigger ones waiting in the wings.

First, Washington’s press corps, and the news media more generally, has been subject to frequent vitriolic attacks. This disdain for the media doesn’t stop at the White House gates. Tillerson has thus far done very few public events, avoided reporters, and limited daily media briefings. On his recent trip to Asia, Tillerson chose only one journalist, from a minimally critical media outlet, to accompany him — unlike previous secretaries, who traveled with a much larger group. Other journalists had to fly commercial, creating logistical hurdles so steep that many couldn’t make the trip.

Dodging the media or attacking it outright impedes U.S. policy objectives while eroding long-standing commitments to a free press.

Dodging the media or attacking it outright impedes U.S. policy objectives while eroding long-standing commitments to a free press. By rejecting the vigorous debate and discussion that the media brings, the Trump administration is legitimizing an approach used by repressive leaders around the world as they evade media engagement that can help bring a deeper understanding of policymaking to a wider public. Conducting diplomacy solely in private decreases the cost of abuse. Repressive leaders no longer have to respond to public criticism — as was the case earlier this week during Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s White House visit.

Second, the release of the State Department’s annual Human Rights Report is usually a public event hosted by the secretary of state, whose involvement signals the important place human rights occupies in U.S. foreign policy. This year, however, the report was released quietly without an appearance or even a comment from the secretary. Instead, an anonymous State Department official hosted a background briefing by phone and told reporters that the secretary didn’t need to be there because “the facts in this report speak for themselves.” In fact, it was the secretary’s absence that spoke for itself, suggesting that the State Department will be virtually silent when it comes to repression, abuse, and exploitation by foreign governments.

Third, the Trump administration’s proposed 2018 budget seeks to severely cut foreign assistance and funding for multilateral institutions. Initial reports that Tillerson was fighting to save the foreign aid budget turned out to be utterly incorrect. The White House budget director, Mike Mulvaney, also left no room for doubt about the administration’s intention: “This is a hard-power budget,” he said, “[a]nd that was done intentionally. The president very clearly wants to send a message to US allies and potential adversaries that this is a strong power administration.” Cuts to foreign aid instead say that helping marginalized populations — assisting those whose human rights are most at risk — is not only inconsequential for U.S. national security, but is of little concern to the American people. 

It’s a clear, grim message: The promotion of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law is a waste of time.

Fourth, under the guise of leveling the playing field for U.S. businesses, Congress gutted rules — with Trump’s blessing — that would require oil and mining companies to disclose payments to foreign governments. These rules, besides promoting better governance, are important to prevent or mitigate grand corruption — wholesale theft of national wealth — the sort of massive stealing that empowers rights abusers and affects basic social services. The move downgrades the bipartisan priorities of good governance, transparency, and anti-corruption, despite strong evidence that economic growth and investment opportunities are riskier and more limited in a climate of opacity.

Fifth, the Trump administration is considering withdrawing from the United Nations Human Rights Council, primarily because of its treatment of Israel. For all the council’s flaws, it has successfully documented and exposed a wide range of human rights issues that have been of concern for many U.S. policymakers and lawmakers. These include the council’s unprecedented U.S.-led statement criticizing China’s crackdown on journalists, lawyers, and human rights defenders and the 2012 North Korea Commission of Inquiry. In the end, pulling out of the council rather than working to make it more effective only decreases the avenues for making U.S. contributions to progress on human rights.

Finally, an obvious example that the Trump administration’s foreign policy is primed to dispense with human rights considerations is last week’s decision to lift the human rights conditions attached to the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Bahrain. These conditions, attached by the Obama administration, were an effort to provide leverage to Bahraini government reformers over the hard-liners, who have been deeply hostile to moving toward a more reform-minded and tolerant governing approach. But now, as the Trump administration looks for new ways to confront Iran, the decision to lift conditions could amount to a warning for Iran while signaling to governments throughout the region that stifling opposition and aggressively silencing dissent will not be a hurdle for U.S. support. The expectation that this administration will soon move forward with arms sales to Saudi Arabia and Nigeria — again, without any conditions or consideration for human rights concerns — shows unmistakably that good governance and universal values are no longer part of the security calculus.

For decades, a values-based approach to foreign policy has been a core tenet for Republicans and Democrats alike, with democratic and human rights principles seen as pillars of prosperity rather than as constraints. But now, over the course of fewer than 100 days, Trump and his closest advisors have made clear their disdain for that approach. Instead they have signaled their intent to turn campaign proposals and rhetoric that exclusively advance the narrow interests of some to the exclusion of others into both policy and law.

The response to Trump’s aggressive actions and rhetoric is growing. Many organizations are activating their networks and opposition to these actions, and new groups are being formed every day. The media are forging ahead — determined to uncover the truth and hold the White House to account. More than 1,000 foreign and civil service staff expressed internal dissent about Trump’s initial executive order banning citizens from seven Muslim majority nations, while other U.S. officials are using public speeches to offer their own response, veiled as it may be. Key political appointees are finding their footing, and members of Congress — on both sides of the aisle — are starting to be explicit about their rejection of the White House’s attempts to undermine fundamental rights.

Traditional U.S. allies are also responding. Washington-based diplomats and U.N. dignitaries are visiting Capitol Hill, making the case for continued U.S. engagement and a robust foreign aid budget. They are encouraging a more humane approach to immigration, refugee settlement, and the need to maintain global alliances.

Building common ground to contain the Trump administration’s assault on human rights values is essential to undercutting the new foreign-policy normal the White House wants Americans to accept. This is neither a progressive agenda nor a conservative one — it is a bipartisan one that requires a collective recognition that going it alone would make Americans less safe and less prosperous. Instead of allowing human rights to be sidelined, let’s all get to work defending and maintaining this foundational pillar of U.S. foreign policy.

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