Politics & Policy

The State Department’s Human-Rights Report Marks a Turning Point in Foreign Policy

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a news conference at the State Department in Washington, D.C., July 15, 2020. (Andrew Harnik/Reuters)
A nation-centered foreign policy need not neglect unalienable rights.

Today’s State Department report on inalienable rights may mark a turning point in the long debate over whether the United States should emphasize power politics or human rights in world affairs. If only Nixon could go to China, could it be that only Donald Trump — mercilessly attacked for an amoral foreign policy — could reaffirm the U.S.’s commitment to promoting its values abroad without neglecting the national sovereignty upon which American power rests?

State Department releases of human-rights reports often amount to dull affairs, often little remembered except by a flock of human-rights organizations. The Trump administration, by contrast, invoked symbols meant to signal a fundamental change in understanding. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo introduced the report, not an assistant secretary of this or that. He did not deliver his remarks from a cozy Foggy Bottom office or the United Nations, but at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia — across the lawn from Independence Hall, the birthplace of America’s greatest contributions to individual rights: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Most tellingly, Pompeo introduced the report not from a body with a long name chock-a-block with words like “international”, “humanity,” “displaced,” or “fundamental,” but from the State Department’s Commission on Inalienable Rights — the very words of the Declaration of Independence.

Skeptics might say that all of this ceremony and symbolism only adds window dressing to a dismal record. The report’s concrete proposals probably repeat well-worn principles of U.S. foreign policy, such as “it is urgent to vigorously champion human rights in foreign policy” and “the power of example is enormous.” No president would openly say that the United States should simply disregard the way a government treats its own people. Even President Reagan, whose U.N. ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick argued for siding with authoritarians who opposed the Soviet Union, also gave the famous 1988 “Tear Down this Wall” speech in Berlin. Many Americans leaders, such as John F. Kennedy and Reagan, invoke John Winthrop’s 17th-century idea that American should be a “shining city on a hill” that acts as a beacon for the rest of the world.

Others have gone even further, claiming that Trump has caused great harm to human rights. That has been the mantra of former Obama administration officials such as Yale international law professor Harold Koh, who wrote a book on Trump’s threat to international law after only one year in office. Such critics claim that the Trump administration has sidled up to terrible dictators such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, allowed China to herd its Muslim Uighur minority into concentration camps, stood silently by as Saudi Arabia murdered Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, and left the Kurds and other rebels to their fate by withdrawing troops from the Syrian civil war.

Despite these charges, the administration’s foreign policy does not follow a purely amoral, realist course. Punishing the Chinese Communist Party for its growing oppression of Hong Kong makes little sense from a purely cost-benefit approach — after all, the United States has little ability to stop Beijing from grabbing complete control over a small island adjacent to its mainland. A Cardinal Richelieu or Chancellor Bismarck might have counseled Trump to keep Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran, make a deal with Venezuela, ally with Russia, and even demarcate spheres of influence with China. Instead, the White House has steadily increased sanctions on Beijing and Moscow, turned up the screws on Iran and Venezuela, and sought to protect the freedom of nations in the Pacific from China’s aggressions. Congress and the president have agreed that the U.S. should inflict further economic punishment on China for its Uighur concentration camps and its violations of Hong Kong’s freedoms.

Pompeo’s report makes clear that the Trump administration has sought to promote individual rights in a uniquely American way. Though Trump’s foreign policy has differed significantly from those of his near predecessors, it has sought to balance American values as well as interests. Trump is not, it turns out, so very different from the other post-war Presidents who have guided the nation in international affairs: belief in a moral dimension to foreign policy is in the American grain. As that putative arch-realist Henry Kissinger once said, “The art of good foreign policy is to understand and to take into consideration the values of a society, to realize them at the outer limit of the possible.

But the moral premises from which Trump starts, though drawn from a long tradition of American political thought, are not those of Obama, Clinton or Carter, nor those of the Bushes and Reagan. Instead of “international human rights” that receive their blessing from agreement by the United Nations, his administration seeks to base rights in the Bible, the republicanism of the American Founding, and the evolution of freedom ever since. In explaining Trump foreign policy, the Commission openly recalls America’s founding truth: “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Walter Russell Mead has argued that Trump belongs in the “Jacksonian” tradition of American foreign policy — a tradition Mead distinguishes from the more common “Wilsonian,” “Hamiltonian,” or “Jeffersonian” schools which, respectively, emphasize liberal international institutions, seek to erect a financial and security architecture to support world order, or advocate a reduced role for the U.S. Trump’s Jacksonianism, by contrast, stems from the belief that the American nation should not try to reshape a recalcitrant world into its image, but to influence the world with the power of its example as a free, prosperous society dedicated to serving the American people well.

Trump sounded these notes of his foreign policy in a September 25, 2019 address to the U.N. General Assembly. The cornerstone was his belief that the global order should remain structured as a world of nation-states — ideally, democratic ones — rather than be organized and governed by remote, bureaucratized international and supranational institutions. The global order, the speech argued, is best served by having a multitude of sovereign national governments, each representing the interests and values of its own people and answerable to them, that together seek to create value, resolve collective action problems and promote the common welfare through negotiation and cooperation with one another.

Consider Trump’s view of war. Unlike his immediate predecessors, Trump clearly prefers non-military, non-interventionist methods of resolving international disputes. That is not, of course, to say that he is unwilling to use American military power altogether, as the killing of Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani showed. But such uses of force have been rare, episodic and small-scaled during the Trump administration, have typically been retaliatory, and were designed to head off the threat of more serious attacks on the U.S.

Contrast that to the missionary impulse to make other societies over in America’s image by using military force, as in Kosovo and Iraq. Trump’s efforts to end the “Forever Wars” by withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria and Afghanistan have had their flaws, and encountered the persistent opposition of the military commanders and the national security bureaucracy. But unlike those of his predecessors, Trump’s foreign policy tends to rely on leveraging America’s unique economic strengths and its pivotal position in global trade to achieve American objectives, instead of deploying U.S. military force abroad.

Such a nation-centered foreign policy will never appeal to our liberal foreign policy elites, on whom a cosmopolitan and post-national vision of world order exerts an irresistible draw. But that in no way implies that free-floating international human rights occupy a higher moral plane. The cause of human liberty is better secured in a world dominated by democratic nations and peoples rather than in a world under the sway of international institutions and their bureaucrats. Pompeo’s Commission on Unalienable Rights suggests that this approach may have a lasting effect in rooting our rights in the more secure foundations of American sovereignty and national power.

Robert J. Delahunty is the Laurence and Jean LeJeune Distinguished Chair and Professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. John Yoo is Emanuel S. Heller Professor of Law at the University of California at Berkeley, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He is the author of Defender-in-Chief: Donald Trump’s Fight for Presidential Power, to be published on July 28.

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