Trump’s threats to a liberal world order are not entirely new
Trump’s attitude towards human rights is not entirely new: our presumed liberal world order is more about liberal economics and pursuing wealth than about protecting human rights.
The election of Donald J. Trump as the president of the United States has led to great concern about the quest for a liberal world order—a rules-based order featuring 1) universal human rights, 2) private property and free trade, and 3) non-aggression and non-intervention. Trump’s statements have cast doubt on the future of each of these three pillars. He has stated that the human rights record of others is not a US concern while indicating he would like to bring back waterboarding of certain detainees. He has emphasized an American first, mercantilist approach to international economics while vociferously attacking the past effects of economic globalization. And he has seemingly threatened the first use of force against North Korea while suggesting the relevance of military options concerning Venezuela.
These and other statements are indeed worrying to those interested in a humane and equitable world order. Of no less concern are actions consistent with Trump’s stated intentions, such as trying to hollow out the State Department while increasing the budget of the Pentagon, trying to delay or deny safe asylum to refugees fleeing persecution and violence, endorsing various strong men abroad without regard to defective elections, attacking the idea of the United Nations while reducing funding to a number of its component parts, and more.
"The US led quest for a liberal world order from 1945 until now was always more aspiration than reality."
However, we should be clear eyed about the fact that the US led quest for a liberal world order from 1945 until now was always more aspiration than reality. The United States itself—the supposed hegemon and guardian of a rules based order—often violated the rules it professed. This was especially so regarding the rules for human rights and security. The United States under both Democratic and Republican presidents showed relatively strong support only for the rules endorsing private property and free trade, but even on that issue there were some deviations. Trump’s statements and policies are not altogether different from the realities of the pre-Trump record—what has been lost under Trump is mainly the hope for a better world.
During the Cold War and even after 1991, the United States was repeatedly involved in gross violations of human rights around the world. It contributed to mass murder in Indonesia in the mid-1960s, supported murderous governments in places like Guatemala after 1954 and Chile in the Pinochet era, adopted the Phoenix program of political murder and torture in the Vietnam war, knew about but turned a blind eye to genocide at the 1971 birth of Bangladesh and in 1994 in Rwanda. This is merely a sample of the record, stressing atrocities or truly gross violations.
To be sure, there was limited progress on some human rights issues because of US leadership or support: after 1991 there was a renaissance in international criminal justice, much attention to a broader transitional justice, sporadic UN peacekeeping as authorized by the UN Security Council to try to protect civilians in conflict areas, and more. However, in all these cases the United States always exempted itself from the international rules it endorsed for others. It refused to cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia regarding possible war crimes by NATO pilots in the bombing of Serbia during 1999. It refused to ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. And so on.
Trump has been crude and unpolished about endorsing illiberal trends.
Furthermore, when Washington gave attention to human rights abroad, it was often in the name of a unilateral emphasis on American values and a self-identification as the best hope for mankind, not because of support for the international version of human rights.
On the security side, especially during the Cold War, the United States was like the Soviet Union, or various governments in developing nations, in that each did what power allowed rather than respect the international rules against aggression and intervention in domestic affairs. From elections in Italy to those in El Salvador, the US intervened to advance the fortunes of right center political parties. It cooperated with the British in the 1953 overthrow of Mossadeq in Iran and the return of the Shah. It encouraged the 1973 overthrow of Allende in Chile. The list of such US interventions is long and includes the 1965 intervention in the Dominican Republic for political purposes, not the proffered saving of American lives.
Even after the Cold War, the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 under false pretentions and without UN approval. That was overt. One is never sure what the record of the deep state might be; the first Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 occurred in the context of clandestine US attacks on the North Vietnamese coast (the second claimed incident about North Vietnamese attacks on US naval vessels in supposedly international waters may have never occurred). It has taken decades to sort through various US misrepresentations about Vietnam alone.
In terms of the economy, the United States has been relatively supportive of liberal economics—meaning private property and private (if regulated) markets. It has even joined the World Trade Organization (WTO), the most important international organization with the authority to pass authoritative judgment on US public policy. True, the WTO has no enforcement authority. But various US trade policies have been overturned by the WTO dispute panels. It is remarkable that Trump, for all his rantings about unfair trade agreements, has not gone after the WTO full bore.
One might note in passing that during the Cold War the United States did support autocratic socialists in places like Yugoslavia and Romania. And at the time of Nixon’s 1971 opening to China the latter was also of that nature. Of course the US goal in all three cases was to weaken the Soviet Union and support the independence of its critics—even if of the authoritarian socialist variety. Power struggles explain US policy, not the rules of liberal world order.
Former Secretary of State Dean Rusk once had the temerity to say that foreign policy was partly a mean, dirty back alley struggle. This is certainly true for security and human rights, where Washington has long espoused the high mora-legal ground while it engaged in ruthless power politics. Sometimes it was just indifferent to atrocities, without a calculated geo-political rationale. In so far as the quest for a liberal world order is concerned, Washington does indeed support liberal economics of various sorts most of the time (which should not be confused with equitable economics). But when it comes to the other two pillars of the desired global regime, the record is mixed at best. Our presumed liberal world order has been more about liberal economics and pursuing wealth than about liberal politics and protecting most human rights.
Trump has been crude and unpolished about endorsing illiberal trends. But the trends were already there. Will an enlightened Congress push back effectively? Will other “steward states” or “good Samaritan states” like Canada or Germany fill the moral void? Stay tuned.
David P. Forsythe is Emeritus Professor in the Department of Political Science, University of Nebraska, and the co-author with Patrice McMahon of the recently published book, American Exceptionalism Reconsidered: U.S. Foreign Policy, Human Rights, and World Order.