Donald Trump is the first president in modern history who barely pays lip service to the promotion of universal human rights. On his grand tour of Asia, he stopped in Vietnam, where he failed to press the regime on what Human Rights Watch calls a “dire” lack of individual freedoms. Senator John McCain tweeted: “@POTUS in #Danang & no mention of human rights - Sad.” Instead, Trump prioritized trade and lauded the Vietnamese president for doing “an outstanding job.” Then Trump was off to Manila, where Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, is accused of fighting the drug trade through a campaign of extrajudicial killings. Trump claimed he had a “great relationship” with Duterte, and according to a Philippine spokesman, never mentioned human rights at all.
Sure, there’s usually a gap, and sometimes an enormous chasm, between U.S. ideals and the reality of American foreign policy. And over the decades, the centrality of human rights in U.S. diplomacy has waxed and waned. Washington is selective in its outrage: fixating on the sins of its enemies, and forgiving the failings of its friends. At times of grave threat, Americans have sometimes trampled over human rights, interning Japanese-Americans and carpet-bombing enemy civilians in World War II, for example. After cutting a deal with a Vichy French regime in North Africa, Franklin Roosevelt quoted a Balkan proverb: “My children, you are permitted in time of great danger to walk with the Devil until you have crossed the bridge.”
But human rights have always been woven into the fabric of U.S. foreign policy. In his inaugural address in 1977, Jimmy Carter declared: “Our commitment to human rights must be absolute.” In reality, Carter ignored human rights violations by the Shah of Iran, a key U.S. ally, who was subsequently overthrown in the 1979 revolution. But Carter pressured right-wing dictatorships to reform, and negotiated the return of the Panama Canal to Panama because it was the right thing to do. (To the chagrin of one Republican senator, who said: “It’s ours. We stole it fair and square.”)
Later presidents wrestled with the promotion of American ideals in an imperfect world. Ronald Reagan castigated the Soviet Union for its failure to protect individual rights. His successor, George H. W. Bush, was a foreign-policy realist, but still promised a “new world order” based on “peace and security, freedom, and the rule of law.” Despite his wariness about wading into military quagmires, Bill Clinton used force, at least in part, to protect human rights in Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo. In 1999, he declared: “Where our values and our interests are at stake, and where we can make a difference, we must be prepared to do so.” George W. Bush initially outlined a humble foreign policy, but following 9/11, sought to transform Iraq into a beacon of freedom in the Middle East.
When Barack Obama collected the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, he maintained his commitment to American ideals: “We have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct.” But he was also responsible for protecting the American people from evil. “I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people,” he said.
Obama seemed to echo the words of political scientist Samuel Huntington, who argued that American identity is based, to a significant degree, on the “creed” of “liberal, democratic, individualistic, and egalitarian values.” Americans are not bound together by an ancient shared heritage. Instead, to be American is to sign on to the founding principles of individual rights. “Being human, Americans have never been able to live up to their ideals; being Americans, they have also been unable to abandon them,” Huntington said.
And then along came Trump—the creed-less president. During a speech in Poland in 2017, Trump spoke vaguely about “the bonds of culture, faith and tradition that make us who we are.” He has also assailed tyranny in North Korea. But human rights are largely irrelevant to the emerging Trump doctrine. For one thing, Trump backed policies that ride roughshod over individual rights: water-boarding and “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” for suspected terrorists, targeting the families of the Islamic State, and banning all Muslims from entering the United States.
Trump has long been generous in his praise of autocrats, whether it’s commending Vladimir Putin for “doing a great job in rebuilding the image of Russia and also rebuilding Russia period,” or congratulating Saddam Hussein for his counter-terrorism policy: “They didn’t read them the rights. They didn’t talk. They were terrorists. Over.” Where Trump has mentioned human rights, he tends to focus narrowly on protecting co-nationals and co-religionists like Christians in the Middle East—echoing Putin’s vision of human rights that extends only to Russian speakers in neighboring countries. He also certainly doesn’t see the United States as a city on a hill. Pressed by Bill O’Reilly about Putin’s murderous policies, Trump shot back: “You think our country’s so innocent?”
Unsurprisingly, Trump’s vision of “America First” is largely stripped of the creed, and instead seeks to tear up unfair trade deals, get allies to take care of themselves, and kill bad dudes. The current reorganization of the State Department, for example, has sidelined human-rights officials.
It’s one thing to play nice with Duterte in order to keep the Philippines in the American, rather than the Chinese, orbit—morals often clash with strategic interests. But Trump seems to genuinely admire Duterte for his “unbelievable job on the drug problem.”
Does all of this matter? It’s certainly true that the gap between American rhetoric and reality opens the United States up to the charge of hypocrisy. And idealism has gotten the United States into trouble before, for example, with the project of liberating Iraq. After years of war in the Middle East, many Americans have little appetite for telling other countries how to run their affairs.
But removing the thread of human rights from American diplomacy will leave a tattered and tawdry cloth. Inconsistent as it may be, the fight for human rights is an important part of American soft power, or the attraction of U.S. culture and ideals, which gets other countries to voluntarily back Washington’s policy preferences. In a world where the major challenges, from climate change to counter-terrorism, require multilateral solutions, other countries have to willingly buy-in to American initiatives. Trying to follow the better angels of America’s nature is an important part of leadership. Filipinos are among the most pro-American foreign populations in the world, in part because 73 percent of them believe the U.S. government respects “the personal freedoms of its people” according to the Pew Research Center’s Spring 2017 Global Attitudes Survey.
Huntington recognized the gulf between what the United States claimed to be and what is was. “America is not a lie; it is a disappointment. But it can be a disappointment only because it is also a hope.” Trump is not a disappointment because he was never a hope.