With the near constant barrage of big ticker news items coming out of the U.S. White House (such as the recent firing of the FBI Director James Comey) causing concerns amongst U.S. citizens, it should come as no surprise that foreign observers are also becoming increasingly concerned about US commitment to causes such as human rights. As reported by USA Today, Trump has met with several international leaders with questionable ties to human rights, including Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte, who has pursued a policy that promotes the extrajudicial killing of anyone suspected of being involved in the drug trade. Trump’s willingness to meet with such leaders is further backed up by other members of his administration. According to the Brookings Institute, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has instructed his diplomats to pursue a foreign policy that promotes U.S. economic and national security issues, even at the expense of human rights and democracy. This follows in the footsteps of the White House budget which fails to mention human rights as concerns.
In his speech to U.S. Department of State employees, Tillerson stated that “it’s important to also remember that guiding all of our foreign policy actions are our fundamental values: our values around freedom, human dignity, the way people are treated. Those are our values. Those are not our policies… If we condition too heavily that others must adopt this value that we’ve come to over a long history of our own, it really creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests.” There are also those who are saying that they have been affected, even at this early stage in the Trump administration. According to Chak Sopheap, the executive director of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, “The months since Mr Trump’s inauguration have coincided with a precipitous and severe deterioration in the human rights situation…Changes in policy and rhetoric in Washington are not going unnoticed.”
Secretary Tillerson’s declaration that the promotion of human rights can be a stumbling block to the security and economic interests of the U.S. is troubling. Although the U.S. human rights record is far from blemish-free, the country has nonetheless been a vocal force for improvement in the human condition; the Trump administration’s policy appears to be an abandonment of U.S. policy stalwarts of freedom and human rights. “America First” reeks of isolationism, a foreign policy that is neither compatible nor desirable in a world so connected by global technology.
The U.S. has a complicated history of tying human rights to foreign aid, and that history has been shaped by each new administration that enters the White House. It should be noted that the Trump administration’s policy is not an abandonment of policies pursued in the past; the Obama administration also made a point of meeting with foreign leaders with questionable human rights backgrounds. According to USA Today, President Obama advocated communication with such leaders to encourage an exchange of cultural behaviours to help change those countries. The same article goes on to quote Ned Price, who served on Obama’s National Security Council, who stated that what is different about Trump is his “feteing of autocrats and dictators.”
It remains to be seen exactly how the Trump administration will address major human rights abuses, but they have made it clear that money and security come first, and that speaks to a worrisome future. The world did – and will – survive without the U.S. as a leading country, but it is the interim period (and the possibilities for gross human rights abuses) that causes concern.