When the State Department released its annual human rights report last week, it contained many of the usual tough American judgments of other countries.
- Iran was criticized for restricting freedom of religion and the media;
- Russia for discriminating against minorities;
- Eritrea for using torture;
- Bulgaria for violence against migrants and asylum seekers.
The list went on.
What was notably missing this year, however, was the usual fanfare around the report
and a news conference promoting it by the new secretary of state, Rex W. Tillerson,
as Democratic and Republican administrations have almost always done.
The State Department dismissed criticism of Tillerson’s absence, which came even from some Republicans.
But for observers of American foreign policy, it was hard not to interpret the low-key rollout as
another step by the Trump administration away from America’s traditional role as a moral authority on the world stage,
one which tries to shape and promote democratic norms, both for their intrinsic value and to create a more secure world.
Interviews with more than a dozen former diplomats, professors, human rights advocates and international politicians, both abroad and in the US, suggested that
the US under President Trump was poised to cede not only this global role — but also its ability to lead by example.
But Trump’s administration stands alone, many experts said, for
- the divisiveness of its tone toward minorities and the media at home
- and toward Muslims and migrants abroad,
- its disparagement of NATO and the European Union
- and its praise of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia,
- all of which have blurred distinctions between allies and enemies.
Trump himself recently put the US on the same moral plane as Russia,
when the Fox News talk show host Bill O’Reilly protested during an interview that Putin was a killer.
“There are a lot of killers,” Trump quickly responded.
“We’ve got a lot of killers. What, do you think our country’s so innocent?”
The comment alarmed many because it underscored an approach by Trump —
like the rejection of migrants from certain predominantly Muslim countries —
that has stripped much of the moral component from American foreign relations and
left him being lectured by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and others about his duties under international law.
Her foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, has gone one step further,
reminding America of its moral duty as the most powerful Western country and one founded by Christian refugees.
“The US is a country where Christian traditions have an important meaning.
Loving your neighbor is a major Christian value, and that includes helping people,” he said recently.
“This is what unites us in the West and this is what we want to make clear to the Americans.”
Behind the rhetoric is the idea that moral authority — as amorphous and idealistic as that can sound —
has imbued America with a special kind of clout in the world,
with a power different from that wielded by autocrats and dictators, or other big countries like Russia and China.
While the Soviet-era dominance across Eastern Europe undoubtedly was undermined by an expensive Cold War arms race with the United States,
it was the Western Democratic system and America that many people looked to emulate, former diplomats said.
“The Berlin Wall didn’t come down because people were responding to American howitzers,”
said Joseph Nye, a former senior State Department official and now a professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
“It came down under hammers and bulldozers wielded by people whose minds had been affected by the ideas of the West.”
Though in its early stages, Trump’s presidency has for many called into question what kind of role America aims to play in the world,
Abandoning that role will have consequences, some are warning.
If America no longer presents an image of religious tolerance — a core component of its moral standing —
it undermines its ability to make needed alliances, several diplomats said.
“Even in the days of George W. Bush, there was no feeling that Bush was against Muslims,”
said Marwan Muasher, a former foreign minister of Jordan and now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace,
where he is vice president for studies and oversees research on the Middle East.
“By contrast, Trump’s administration has seemed almost to revel in its anti-Islamic sentiments.
There is no effort on the administration’s side to reverse that image.
There’s no empathy toward the region in any way.”
For Hoshyar Zebari, a former foreign minister of Iraq,
the initial decision to issue the migrant ban and include Iraq was utterly puzzling as well as deeply unfair,
given how many Iraqis had fought on the same side as the Americans against the Islamic State and its precursors in Iraq.
Trump does seem to have been convinced of the importance of Iraq’s role in the fight against Islamic extremism,
and the latest version of his immigration ban includes six predominantly Muslim countries, leaving Iraq off the list.
Still, the anti-Muslim rhetoric “has emboldened extremists that this is the true face of America,” Zebari said.
Some of the policies Trump seems eager to pursue may also compromise America’s ability
to lecture China about more tolerance toward Tibetan Buddhists or Uighurs,
and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey about a free news media or tolerance of the Kurds, they noted.
Not everyone agrees that Trump’s approach is a startling departure from America’s values, however.
Hubert Védrine, a former French foreign minister, noted that
while Barack Obama may have been “more elegant” and “refined” in his words,
he pursued many policies similar to Trump’s, like urging NATO members to do more.
“One cannot describe the international system before Trump as working very well,” Mr. Védrine said.
“It’s not as though it was a paradisaical, idyllic world, and abruptly Trump appeared like some kind of Attila.”
Yet the idea of a moral component in American identity dates back to the pilgrims.
The notion became a particularly strong principle in foreign policy after World War I,
with the US playing a leading role in the creation of global organizations.
That moral strand was strengthened by World War II,
not only because of America’s part in helping to vanquish the Nazis,
but also its postwar efforts to help rebuild Europe and form the United Nations.
Now, as America looks at minimizing its commitments to NATO and the European Union,
there is the sense that it can no longer be counted on as a reliable partner.
“The most burning question overseas is,
‘Can we rely on the US to keep its commitments, can we rely on you to lead in the way we expect, are you going to consider the interests of your allies when new deals are made?’”
said Michèle Flournoy, the former under secretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration.
Instead, Trump seems intent to pursue a “what’s in it for us?” approach to foreign policy much closer to that of Russia,
where threats and lethal power are its chief points of leverage,
and where international relations are often viewed as a zero-sum game.
Where that leads is anyone’s guess.
“What is very different is that the Trump administration says very bluntly that ‘America has no responsibility in the world and it will pull back,’”
said Laurence Nardon, who runs the North America program at the French Institute for International Relations in Paris, a prominent think tank.
“Trump will still do things, but in a transactional way,” she added.
“He will fight ISIS because it’s perceived as a true and real danger to the United States, and he’ll do deals that benefit the country,
but not out of any sense of moral responsibility to help the rest of the world.”