Elephants in the Room
After 100 Days, Trump Still Sets a Sad Example for the World
The president is making it very clear that the U.S. government will no longer prioritize democracy and human rights.
The “first 100 days” assessment is arbitrary and does not speak to the entirety of an administration that will last 1,460 days, if not 2,920. It is not and cannot be a final grade. It is, however, a useful time to take stock of the direction in which a new administration is taking the country.
And certainly, when a president releases both a “100-day action plan to Make America Great Again” and three press releases detailing his administration’s 100-day accomplishments, it is fair game for foreign policy watchers to comment on the occasion as well. (It is worth noting that the White House also released “First Month” and “First 40 Days of Action” summaries as well, so the president’s stated opposition to the 100-day assessment is highly dubious.)
No reasonable analyst expects a president to accomplish many significant policy objectives in the first 100 days in office — particularly objectives that require legislative approval or significant overhauls of longstanding systems. Most often, there are only a handful of key reforms in this short window. The Obama administration initiated a state children’s health insurance program and an economic stimulus plan. President George W. Bush launched a significant tax cut and the No Child Left Behind initiative. President Bill Clinton introduced sweeping budget reform and launched an overhaul of health care, under the leadership of Hillary Clinton. President Ronald Reagan advanced an ambitious tax and budget plan and elevated foreign relations — with Central America, Iran, and the Soviet Union — in his early days.
Just as important as these quick policy wins was the way in which each administration signaled how it would govern and what values it would promote. Therefore, this initial assessment should look not only at policy accomplishments, but also at actions that created an environment for future policymaking. Those signal-sending actions include rhetoric, engagement of partners, budget creation, team building, and leadership by example. Looking at how an administration chooses to begin its tenure is arguably more fruitful than just a look at completed tasks.
In an earlier piece, I questioned whether President Donald Trump would be the leader of the free world, continuing the bipartisan American tradition of promoting democracy and human rights around the globe. Examining signal-sending actions is the most effective means of assessing this commitment, as most presidents do not take significant, concrete policy actions to promote democracy or human rights in their first 100 days.
Since his inauguration, Trump has made clear that he is not committed to promoting democracy and human rights, or America’s leadership role in these areas. This is not breaking news to anyone in the foreign policy community, as no one expected such leadership. It is not breaking news to those outside of the Beltway bubble, as he is not negating any campaign promises or doing a radical about-face. But it is essential to highlight this deviation from a bipartisan consensus that has been shared since President Jimmy Carter held office, not because of an arbitrary 100-day marker, but rather to highlight that Trump’s unwillingness to play this role leaves a significant gap that must be filled by some entity in the international community for the remaining 1,360 days of his term.
Let’s look at the signals he has sent since inauguration.
Telling rhetoric. Trump’s Inauguration Day commitment not to impose “our way of life on anyone” has translated into silence on violations of universally recognized values. He has made no references to an American role in supporting democracy and human rights globally in his first 100 days. The White House has been remarkablely unresponsive to even the worst atrocities or democratic violations around the world, including those in Myanmar, South Sudan, and Syria (with notable exceptions covered below). In three months of White House press statements, only a release about the Armenian genocide and the first lady’s honoring of International Women of Courage indicate any reference to these issues.
Two significant exceptions to this assessment are Trump’s reaction to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians and strong remarks at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in recognition of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Unfortunately, each must be contextualized within the administration’s repeated silence on these issues. The Syrian remarks were situated within an unclear muddle of comments by administration officials about Assad’s fate, with positions ranging from avoiding confrontation with him, to allowing the Syrian people to decide, to insisting he must go, leaving doubt that the administration was more serious about a sustained response to mass atrocities in Syria. The Holocaust Museum remarks came after months of silence about the significant increase in anti-Semitic attacks throughout the United States.
Trump would be wise to remember that the strength of rhetoric comes not only from each statement, but from the consistency of the entire narrative.
Mixed levels of engagement with other countries. A foundational component of exercising leadership of the free world, or of promoting democracy and human rights, is highlighting the importance of these values in America’s relationships with other nations. Naturally, the United States will and should engage nondemocratic nations as part of its pursuit of national security and foreign policy interests, but must do so while maintaining a clear message about the importance of shared liberal values among democratic allies.
While Trump has met with many democratic allies, including Argentina, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Israel, Japan, Peru, the United Kingdom, and others, as well as nondemocratic allies, he has missed important opportunities in these meetings to highlight that the United States values shared democratic commitments.
This was remarkably evident in the differences between Trump’s reception of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, which illustrated Trump’s failure to value the importance of democratic allies — even when confronted with differences of views — and not just allies that deliver cooperation. Certainly, the United States can and will have disagreements with democratic countries, and will have close relations and cooperation with autocratic governments. However, the outward hostility toward the leader of a key democratic ally and the European Union signals an indifference to the importance of the relationship, particularly at a time when liberal values are strained in Europe and globally. Likewise, the praise for Sisi sent a strong signal about American willingness to ally with and publicly praise dictators, with no nuance. A person who is not afraid of offending others, Trump certainly could have highlighted Egypt’s shortcomings on human rights or even mentioned the Americans who have been imprisoned there. While Trump should be commended for negotiating the release of Aya Hijazi, Trump’s failure to make clear that the United States will oppose continued violations of human rights and illegal imprisonment of Americans is telling and highly problematic.
A dismal budget. Trump is well within his rights, and certainly well advised, to streamline and improve the large bureaucracy he oversees. Few will defend the current size or functioning of the bureaucracy.
However, the president’s proposed 30-percent cut of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development is highly concerning in terms of both the magnitude and the targeting of human rights and democracy-related functions — among many other, such as the environment — for significant cuts. While it is impossible that the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor would be eliminated, it is likely that it would take a significant cut if Trump’s budget moved forward. The fact that the Office of Global Women’s Issues would potentially be fully eliminated is highly problematic. Again, this is not to argue that the State Department does not need cuts, realignment, or streamlining. Rather, it is to say that the articulation of the cuts without an articulation of the value of many human rights or democracy programs, and the explicit targeting of these programs, is yet another indication of the administration’s unwillingness to promote these values abroad.
A mixed-quality team. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley are the two appointees most responsible for the promotion of democracy and human rights, and thus worthy of review.
Tillerson’s record is mixed at best. His steadfastness on Russia sanctions gave reason to be hopeful about his commitment to holding the line on democracy. But his decision to skip the rollout of his department’s annual report on the state of human rights, which would have been an effortless way to show a commitment, gave human rights activists some cause for concern. His decision to lift human rights conditions on an arms sale to Bahrain bodes very poorly for how the administration will balance the ever-tense relationship between security priorities and human rights. Tillerson’s consideration of disengaging the U.N. Human Rights Council should be received positively, given his willingness to speak truthfully about the membership of China, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia on such a body. However, the real test of his commitment to human rights will not be how quickly he walks away from a highly hypocritical human rights body, but rather if his critiques of the human rights records of members and of the council’s efficacy are paired with American bilateral pressure on the countries in question outside of the U.N., and with a commitment to reform the council. Critique and disengagement without honest efforts to reform ring hollow.
Haley has been a bright light within the first 100 days, with strong statements on Russia’s support for Syria, Chechnya, and the Human Rights Council, as well as an unprecedented U.N. Security Council meeting focused on human rights. She has boldly bucked U.N. operating procedures and customary practices to speak out against human rights violations. Whether she is acting on her own or at the direction of a coordinated White House policy operation is unclear, but her actions are very welcome. Trump’s offhand remark about replacing Haley, made at the U.N. Security Council meeting at the White House which she shrewdly and courageously organized, could be a sign of Trump’s inexplicable and poor sense of humor or a developing rift. For the sake of having a principled voice in the administration, I hope it is the former.
The lack of a USAID administrator clearly hurts many of the objectives advanced by the agency, including democracy and human rights. While USAID is sorely in need of organizational reform, the gutting or neglect of the agency without a clear signal of support for the mission is a clear indication of disregard for its importance.
Setting a sad example. Trump’s inaugural promise to “let [the American way of life] shine as an example for everyone to follow” has proven hollow.
While he is conceptually correct that America’s international efforts to stand for human rights and promote democracy have long been a powerful example for the world to follow, he has not translated this into practice. Historically, when the United States has faltered in its own daily exercise of democratic principles or boldly lived up to the best of this tradition, the world has taken notice and in diverse ways, followed suit. Weaknesses in the America’s own democratic and human rights practices are often met with cries of hypocrisy or even satisfaction that the United States is no longer the moral leader of the world.
Trump’s willingness to critique democratic institutions — judges, Congress, laws that constrain his power or behavior — when they do not agree with his views is highly dangerous to both American democracy and the example that America sets for the world. His divisive rhetoric sends a signal that all types of people do not share the same respect or rights under his administration, a dangerous sign to authoritarian leaders seeking affirmation for their more extreme versions of targeting groups in their own countries. The strength of U.S. democracy is based on an appreciation that disagreements can and must be civilly discussed and adjudicated in the public square and through democratic institutions. Trump’s seeming disagreement with this as a core component of American democracy is highly damaging to our system and our ability to display strength globally.
What’s next? Over its first 100 days, the Trump administration’s lack of foreign policy commitment to democracy and human rights was highly problematic. None of this is a surprise or a violation of campaign promises. Rather, it is a clarion call for those in both parties to ask whether the promotion of democracy and human rights should be a foreign policy objective, and if so, who should lead the process. Trump is making it very clear that the U.S. government will no longer play that role.
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