Trump’s foreign policy has little use for human rights advocacy

For the Trump administration’s zero-sum foreign policy goals of “America first” and “always winning,” human rights advocacy has little use.

In case there was any doubt, it is official: Human rights play no role in US President Donald Trump’s foreign policy.

On June 19, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley announced that the United States would withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) because of its “disproportionate focus and unending hostility towards Israel.”

Although Haley did not say so, another factor may have been the fact that, during the 2016 US presidential campaign, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein called Trump’s favourable views on torture as “deeply unsettling and disturbing.”

“If Donald Trump is elected on the basis of what he has said already, I think it is without any doubt that he would be dangerous from an international point of view,” Zeid said on October 16, 2016. More recently, Zeid criticised the Trump administration’s policy of separating and detaining children from their asylum-seeking parents at the US border.

Trump is known to hold personal grudges.

The US withdrawal from UNHRC came one week after Trump’s friendly tete-a-tete with North Korea’s brutal dictator Kim Jong-un, after which Trump publicly expressed admiration for, and even envy over, Kim’s total control over his country. “He loves his people,” Trump said of the man who allegedly ordered the assassination of his own half-brother.

Human rights NGOs and most European countries condemned the US move but Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu applauded it, calling the UNHRC “a biased, hostile, anti-Israel organisation.”

Haley and Netanyahu make a legitimate point: Israel has been the target of far more UNHRC condemnations than any other country. As egregious as Israel’s daily human rights abuses against Palestinians are — living under forced occupation is itself an abuse of human rights — it is hardly the only country in the world, or even in the MENA region, with an unclean record. Many Rohingyas would gladly trade places with a Palestinian.

One could argue that the UNHRC’s anti-Israel tilt simply makes up for the fact that the world’s greatest power — the United States — has historically done little more than slap Israel’s wrist in the face of its abuses and, under Trump, even wrist slaps have ceased. However, UNHRC is an international organisation and, in theory at least, should aim for objectivity.

Even those who share Haley’s argument and her pro-Israel stance, such as Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin, were critical of the administration’s decision to withdraw from UNHRC. “Trump has — by his racist rhetoric, treatment of immigrants, contempt for democracy and infatuation with dictators — robbed the United States of the stature needed to make an otherwise valid criticism of the UNHRC,” Rubin wrote.

Trump’s withdrawal from UNHRC raises a deeper and more enduring question: What role should human rights play in US foreign policy? The issue has been a fraught one ever since President Woodrow Wilson advocated early in the last century for the rights of European peoples to pursue freedom and independence — although he did not extend this argument to those living under European colonial rule nor to African Americans living in suffocating oppression.

During the second world war, the United States muted its criticism of the Soviet Union’s abysmal human rights record under Joseph Stalin because Moscow was a key ally against Adolf Hitler. Within a few years of the war’s end, however, the United States was eagerly providing military and economic aid to any dictator, no matter how brutal, so long as that dictator was avowedly anti-communist.

Former President Jimmy Carter pledged to make human rights the cornerstone of his administration’s foreign policy but he supported the shah of Iran and other authoritarian leaders critical to the Cold War competition.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, human rights re-emerged as an aspiration of US foreign policy in the form of democracy promotion. Starting with Moscow’s former allies and republics, Washington envisioned a global democratic wave that would end both human rights abuses and war.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks caused a reassessment: neoconservatives viewed Islamic extremism as the result of a democracy deficit in the Middle East and argued that the United States should not just support democratic change but impose it. Others argued that doing so risked creating turmoil that would only fuel jihadism. The Obama administration tried to find a middle ground: Promote but don’t coerce democracy and seek to tame Islamist movements so they will play the democratic game.

Under Trump, the link between democracy promotion and human rights has been severed, as have concerns about civil liberties and human dignity.

The reality is that the United States has never had a human rights policy. Like most major powers throughout history, the United States has pursued its national interests — as framed by the administration in power — in realpolitik terms. Sometimes advocacy for human rights is a useful tool in this pursuit; other times not. For the Trump administration’s zero-sum foreign policy goals of “America first” and “always winning,” human rights advocacy has little use.

Mark Habeeb is East-West editor of The Arab Weekly and adjunct professor of Global Politics and Security at Georgetown University in Washington.

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