After Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election in November, a foreign ambassador accosted one of my deputies at the State Department, where from 2014 to early this year I served as the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor. “You must be so sad!” the man, a representative of a Central Asian government, said, grinning widely. “All this talk of elections being important, of democracy being important, and now look at you! Now even your new president says there were 3 million illegal votes in your election! … You must all feel so stupid these days.”
Since then, the global club of autocrats has been crowing about Trump. Sudan’s dictator Omar al Bashir praised him for focusing “on the interests of the American citizen, as opposed to those who talk about democracy, human rights, and transparency.” Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei thanked him for showing “America’s true face” by trying to ban Muslim immigration. The Cambodian government justified attacks on journalists by saying Trump, too, recognizes that “news published by [international] media institutions does not reflect the real situation.”
Trump, as they’ve seen, takes no interest in pestering them about their domestic issues. They’ve heard him echo their propaganda that America is too crooked and corrupt to preach moral standards to others. This makes me sad. But something in the dictators’ delight also makes me a little proud—it’s an unintended tribute to what America has stood for, until very recently at least. Those cheering a hoped-for demise of the American idea remind us how much that idea has mattered to the world.
The desire to help those struggling abroad gain the freedoms enjoyed here at home has remained a uniquely unifying force in American politics. Over the years, Democratic internationalists have found common cause with Republican anti-communists, who’ve aligned with liberal Amnesty International volunteers, who’ve sided with conservative church groups sponsoring refugees and fighting human trafficking, behind the belief that the United States should promote something beyond its immediate self-interest.
Traditionally, U.S. presidents have used their farewell addresses to bolster this vision. Barack Obama said that America’s rivals will never “match our influence unless we give up what we stand for.” George W. Bush declared that “freeing people from oppression and despair is eternally right.” Bill Clinton said that if history has “taught us anything, it is that we achieve our aims by defending our values and leading the forces of freedom and peace.” Ronald Reagan brought his presidency to a close with a story about a Vietnamese refugee, peering up from his boat at his rescuers on a U.S. aircraft carrier and calling out: “Hello American sailor. Hello freedom man.”
But through it all, the grim specter of “America First” has stalked the country. Its last, most notorious incarnation, the Charles Lindbergh-led movement to keep the United States out of World War II, was far from a fringe phenomenon. It had a seductive, twisted logic: While Hitler’s crimes were terrible, and Germany’s Jewish, British, Polish, and French victims understandably sought America’s help, the country’s responsibility was to itself, Lindbergh argued. Joining Europe’s eternal wars would not resolve them. Building up the military and defending the homeland, not wasting America’s strength abroad, would safeguard its freedom.
Americans overwhelmingly agreed with this reasoning until it was shattered—not by a more persuasive counter-argument, but by the horror of Pearl Harbor. Even then, before technology made distance near-obsolete, it became obvious that oceans alone would not protect America from far-away tyranny. So Americans went to war, not just for themselves, but for FDR’s Four Freedoms. American GIs took pride not just in winning battles, but in liberating death camps.
The war’s horrors spurred Washington to champion what is still known, somewhat clumsily, as the post-World War II liberal international order: a network of institutions and alliances founded on the idea that nations have obligations to each other, designed in principle, if not always in practice, to defend democratic ideals. The United States helped rebuild Germany and Japan as democracies so they could be pillars of this new order, backed decolonization in Africa and Asia, and persuaded the new United Nations to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Leading with its values gave the United States a sense of purpose in the Cold War. It won that struggle, in part, because it articulated aims that appealed to people on both sides of the Iron Curtain—independence for the Baltic States; freedom of choice for the Hungarians, Czechs, and Poles; and security guarantees to the Soviet Union that came with promises to respect human rights. Of course, America was selective, directing the rhetoric of freedom at its enemies, not its friends. What of its backing of dictators like Pinochet and the Shah of Iran, or its bombing of Vietnam and Cambodia, or its crimes of racism at home? But these wrongs provoked debate in part because they so clearly contradicted American ideals, and because Americans took their self-image seriously.
Over time, and especially as the exigencies of a bipolar world fell away, America adjusted its actions to fit that image more than the other way around. By the late 1980s, pressed by a growing international human rights movement, the United States had sanctioned apartheid-era South Africa and helped push from power both Chile’s Pinochet and the Philippines’s Ferdinand Marcos, a one-time ally. In the 1990s, human rights activists who had once denounced U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia and Central America began urging military action in Kurdistan, Bosnia, and Kosovo, to protect victims of mass violence. The U.S. government began barring aid to foreign military units that had committed human rights abuses. It doled out grants to foreign civil society groups promoting democracy and human rights, even those critical of U.S. allies (like Egypt) and policies (like its use of landmines).
By the time I joined the Obama administration in 2014, it was widely expected that the president of the United States would raise human rights concerns in just about every meeting with a foreign leader, and meet with activists in countries he visited. If a dissident was arrested, an opposition party banned, or an atrocity committed somewhere in the world, the State Department would almost certainly have something to say. My colleagues and I were proud of our role in encouraging democratic transitions in Burma and Sri Lanka; many of us anguished over our hesitations, from Rwanda in 1994, to Syria today. We argued constantly about the means of human rights promotion, but hardly ever about the ends.
For many of us in the administration, the Arab Spring reinforced both the difficulty and necessity of leading with our values. In the short run, working with authoritarian allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia was unavoidable. Yet we knew that every bet America had made on the stability of dictatorships in the Middle East had eventually come up short. Syria provided the ultimate demonstration: Few noticed when, in March of 2011, some children were jailed and tortured after spraying pro-democracy graffiti on a wall in a provincial town of this small, distant country. But then their government’s brutal response enabled the rise of the Islamic State and drove millions of refugees to Europe, sparking a populist backlash that upended the politics of the Western world. Surely the United States had an interest in those Syrian kids being able to speak without fear.
On top of that, we saw that sustaining the belief that America is not just a country but an idea kept it connected to every person on the planet who admires that idea. A transactional foreign policy is not what convinces people around the world to stand with America. What has bound together our closest alliances, convincing others to tolerate America’s overwhelming political and military dominance, is the sense that despite its flaws, it remains a country that generally uses its power for the common good, and views its fight as inseparable from the world’s fight.
Americans who came of age during the Iraq War might have a hard time believing anyone in the world actually views U.S. foreign policy in such a benevolent light. In many places, people don’t. But in the refugee camps and war zones that I’ve visited, I’ve never met anyone who told me they were angry at China or France or Russia for failing to help them. Where people are desperate, it is still America they count on, whether they love or scorn it, and America they blame when aid does not come. They know that the United States is the one country with both the power and predilection to stand up for them.
In 2012, I traveled to an opposition-held area in northern Syria, a rural, conservative part of the country where a hypothetical opinion poll probably would have shown an approval rating for America in the single digits. Yet in town after town, people surrounded me, demanding to know why the United States was not defending them from the Assad regime’s airstrikes. I told them about America’s losses in Iraq; I tried to explain our wariness of another Middle East war. They thought I was mad. Of course you can do something, they said—it’s your job. Barrel bombs have a way of curing people of their disdain for American exceptionalism.
Even where people hate American policies, there is a notion of America that transcends that hatred: the idea of a country where people can be who they are and say what they think; where they are basically treated fairly, whatever their race or religion; where the justice system is not corrupt; where the powerful obey the law and are punished when they don’t; where refugees and immigrants can become as much a part of society as the descendants of its first settlers. When America is blamed for compromising this ideal, it is because the world counts on the country to live up to it. This is a burden but also a blessing.
And over time, the values America stands for have become embedded in the daily business of international relations all over the world. Today, not only American leaders, but the UN secretary general, urge Russia to stop killing civilians in Syria. The UN Security Council discusses political prison camps in North Korea. The European Union gives awards to Chinese dissidents. At global gatherings, nations affirm the Western vision of a global internet that no government can censor or control. The G-20 tries to stop kleptocrats from hiding their money in Western banks. The Organization of American States censures Venezuela for abandoning democracy. The African Union documents war crimes in Sudan.
This has been a great success of American diplomacy. But if you are an authoritarian ruler of iron grip and fragile legitimacy like, say, Vladimir Putin, it is also dangerous. In every capital of diplomacy and finance, you hear talk of universal values and norms. You see the same ideas migrating onto placards held by protestors ousting strongmen from Libya to Ukraine. You fear that your own people will get the same idea.
If you’re a dictator, how do you rebut a message with such broad appeal? During the Cold War, you could trot out communism or anti-imperialism as alternatives, but today few people will believe your obviously corrupt system is better than the rule of law and democracy championed by the West. So you appeal to cynicism rather than idealism. You say that the so-called democracies of the world are just as craven and corrupt as anyone, but less honest about it; that every country kills its enemies; that all media is propaganda; that morality is just a weapon some countries use to beat up others; that in this contest, there is no objective truth, just subjective opinion, no right or wrong, just winners and losers.
And then, miracle of miracles, a man who makes your argument for you becomes president of the United States. He alleges that elections in America are “rigged,” that its government “kills plenty of people” just like Russia’s, that its “press is the enemy of the people,” that its intelligence agencies peddle fake news, that it really does reject Muslims after all, even those who risked their lives for Americans in foreign wars.
This new American president gives key government tasks to his family. He places military officers above civilians (as an Egyptian diplomat said to one of my colleagues after the election: “You are just like us now, reporting to generals!”) You realize, to your delight, that you can make business deals with his sons, rent conference rooms in his hotels, even put his future national security adviser on your payroll. What an incredible opportunity this presents, not only to buy influence, but to show that America is no better than any other country, that the world’s policeman is not only off the beat but on the take.
Of course, you hope this new American president will do something for you (that he’ll lift sanctions if you’re Putin, or resume selling you arms if you’re the king of Bahrain or Saudi Arabia). But even if that doesn’t happen immediately, you know America’s moral influence depends on the strength and appeal of its own democracy. The main reason you welcome Trump is that his words disparage American democracy and his actions discredit it.
If you’re an authoritarian leader, you can also rest assured that Trump’s America Firstism will, by definition, inspire no one outside America. It will give no one in your country a reason to look up to and align with the United States. Your people will hear from the American president exactly what they hear from you: America protects its interests; other countries protect theirs. There are no universal values. Everything is transactional.
Can America’s leadership of and for a free world ever be restored? Fewer and fewer people today lived through World War II and the Cold War, experiences that persuaded past generations to support such a role for the United States. So a pessimist might say that today’s America Firsters can be defeated only as their forebears were—by a new conflict or calamity that will scare them straight.
An optimist might say it won’t come to that, that Trump himself won’t matter so long as the adults around him are allowed to run the show. But foreign policy is, as much as anything, how America explains itself to the world—the story its words and actions tell. The president is the country’s chief storyteller. America’s friends won’t be able to unhear Trump’s debasement of its ideals. Its adversaries won’t want to. Putin would retweet him (if that were Putin’s thing).
For now, those of us who wish to save the rules- and values-based international order will have to take it upon ourselves to do so. It won’t help to churn out op-eds and think tank papers urging Trump to do this or that. We won’t change Trump. But we can try to make sure he doesn’t change America. We can try to preserve the power of America’s example, even as we work, over time, to restore the exemplary use of its power.
The tension between America’s ideals and its reality is acute today, but not new. When, as a U.S. diplomat, I asked other governments to respect human rights, they would often throw problems in the United States back in my face. “You tortured people in Guantanamo. Your police in Ferguson, Missouri was racist. Your CIA spied on our emails.” I would reply: “Yes, we make mistakes in America. But you know this because our free press tells you. And look at how we correct them: Our Supreme Court ordered our president to heed the Guantanamo prisoners’ rights. Our independent Justice Department reformed the Ferguson police department. Our Congress restrained mass surveillance.”
America will always be the country that elected Trump, and the world won’t soon forget it. But Americans will still have a good story to tell if they can point to how their courts, their elected lawmakers, their civil society—liberals and conservatives, both—rallied to defend the Constitution, confront corruption, make refugees feel welcome, and express generosity to those in need around the world. The checks and balances in America’s system—its antibodies—have always been its best argument. If they pass the Trump test, the argument can emerge stronger.
Internationalist Republicans will have a particularly heavy responsibility here. Even if they support Trump politically, they’ll need to join with Democrats to protect civil liberties and the integrity of American democracy, and serve as an alternative voice of America. On the Hill, they can bolster America’s anti-corruption and ethics laws and the institutions that enforce them. They can protect the parts of the State Department budget essential for advancing American values, including funding for civil society groups in closed societies. That includes supporting funding for the United Nations, given that the new Secretary General Antonio Gutteres, and the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid al Raad, are among the few global leaders today willing to speak up for the values the United States traditionally defends.
Democrats like me will also bear a burden. While President Obama believed the United States should stand up and sacrifice for the freedom and well-being of others, in the final years of his presidency, he was more inclined to speak to his base about the limits of American influence than its potential. It’s fine to say “don’t do stupid shit,” but as a slogan to inspire Americans to stand up for global freedom, security, and prosperity, it’s a far cry from “bear any burden.”
Trump’s alleged entanglement with Putin will clarify the stakes for many young progressives mobilizing against him. But Democratic leaders and activists will still need to mount a conscious effort to persuade their base that the answer to America First should be to put American ideals first, at home and abroad. Trump has ceded the traditional Republican ground of American patriotism and exceptionalism. Democrats should seize it.
If an internationalist president succeeds Trump, another question is whether the rest of the world will tolerate the United States reclaiming its traditional leadership role. The answer depends in part on how much damage Trump does in the interim. But I think the demand for America defending norms and values won’t go away. Even some governments that think Trump’s America First policy is a good deal for them may start to miss America’s presence.
As Trump’s proposed budget cuts suggest, an America that doesn’t care about freedom and human rights may care about little else. Few governments around the world will like the implications. Ethiopia, for example, might want fewer U.S. statements about its political prisoners, but it sure as hell wants America to support its economic development, and peacekeeping and refugees in its region. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte wants fewer lectures about extrajudicial killings, but if a typhoon hits his country, the U.S. Navy had better show up. The Gulf monarchies are counting on U.S. help to stabilize Iraq and Syria after ISIS is gone. Sometimes, they even prod Washington to speak out for human rights—when the victims are Muslims in Burma, Sri Lanka, or Kosovo, that is.
Just before leaving the State Department, I met the Central Asian ambassador who had gloated to my deputy a few weeks before. I conceded that given Trump’s statements, it might be now harder for the State Department to talk to his government about its internal problems. But I added: “Let’s be honest: Your small country is not that important. Much of what you count on America to do—like defend your sovereignty against Russia—we do, not because it directly benefits our people, but because we care about larger principles. What you like most about our foreign policy comes from the same place in our hearts as the conversations about repression and corruption that you don’t like. So I’m curious: How do you feel about the turn in our politics? Aren’t you a bit worried?” He admitted he was.
I'm worried, too. But I'm also a little bit hopeful. Trump has shown that even in America, the values of liberal democracy cannot be taken for granted. They must be defended, if not by the leader of America, than by the leadership of Americans themselves. Maybe, in the end, he will be the crisis that the country, and the world, need to relearn the virtues he disdains, and the essential role of the United States in defending them.