Friday, March 17, 2017

The Moral Low Ground

The old gray mare, she ain’t what she used to be. Indeed, as a wave of “America First” slogans accompanied by clear anti-globalism, redefine U.S. foreign policy, as the United States reevaluates its foreign aid contributions, support for multi-national organizations united for peace (e.g., the United Nations) and mutual defense (e.g., NATO) while killing trade agreements, China is grinning like a Cheshire Cat. Those global “catbird” seats that America is abandoning, are quickly occupied by China and, occasionally (read: Turkey, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, etc.), Russia. Trump’s overwhelming support for “whatever Netanyahu wants for Israel” has also pretty much removed any real possibility for U.S. mediation between Palestinians and Israel.
And while we have yet to get completely over the stigmas of CIA torture at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay and the collateral damage American missile and bombs have inflicted in recent conflicts, most of the free world has long since looked to the United States as the world’s moral watchdog. Nevertheless, the credibility behind that trust is eroding fast, and soon the United States will find few allies willing to go the extra distance to protect American companies, citizens and policies outside the U.S. itself. Our own president has even embraced a return to torture as moral acceptable for the United States, which, if ever implemented, would fully justify foreign powers in conflict with the U.S. to torture captured American soldiers.
But even our seemingly unassailable position as the world’s most successful functioning democracy is also slip-sliding away. Gridlock, irreconcilable polarization, fake news, the deterioration of civil rights priorities, voting distortions and a new world defined by vituperatives and a challenge to the free press have impacted how America is perceived almost everywhere. To many, we really should not even call ourselves a full democracy anymore:
“AMERICA, which has long defined itself as a standard-bearer of democracy for the world, has become a ‘flawed democracy’ according to the taxonomy used in the annual Democracy Index from the Economist Intelligence Unit, our sister company. Although its score did not fall by much—from 8.05 in 2015 to 7.98 in 2016—it was enough for it to slip just below the 8.00 threshold for a ‘full democracy.’ It joins France, Greece and Japan in the second-highest tier of the index. The downgrade was not a consequence of Donald Trump, states the report. Rather, it was caused by the same factors that led Mr Trump to the White House: a continued erosion of trust in government and elected officials, which the index measures using data from global surveys. In total, it incorporates 60 indicators across five broad categories: electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, democratic political culture and civil liberties.” The Economist, January 25th.
You can even witness the new administration’s reluctance to continue to prioritize the support of human rights as a cornerstone of our foreign policy: “When the State Department released its annual human rights report last week, it contained many of the usual tough American judgments of other countries. Iran was criticized for restricting freedom of religion and the media; Russia for discriminating against minorities; Eritrea for using torture; Bulgaria for violence against migrants and asylum seekers. The list went on.
“What was notably missing this year, however, was the usual fanfare around the report and a news conference promoting it by the new secretary of state, Rex W. Tillerson, as Democratic and Republican administrations have almost always done.
“The State Department dismissed criticism of Mr. Tillerson’s absence, which came even from some Republicans. But for observers of American foreign policy, it was hard not to interpret the low-key rollout as another step by the Trump administration away from America’s traditional role as a moral authority on the world stage that tries to shape and promote democratic norms, both for their intrinsic value and to create a more secure world.
“Interviews with more than a dozen former diplomats, professors, human rights advocates and international politicians, both abroad and in the United States, suggested that the United States under President Trump was poised to cede not only this global role, but also its ability to lead by example.” New York Times, March 10th.
We seem to be embracing a new “ends justifies the means” philosophy that literally trumps international notions of morality (e.g., as expressed in the U.N.’s Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment) and human rights values, a change that has become deeply disturbing to our allies… for as long as they continue to remain allies: “Mr. Trump himself recently put the United States on the same moral plane as Russia, when the Fox News talk show host Bill O’Reilly protested during an interview that Mr. Putin was a killer… ‘There are a lot of killers,’ Mr. Trump quickly responded. ‘We’ve got a lot of killers. What, do you think our country’s so innocent?’
“The comment alarmed many because it underscored an approach by Mr. Trump, like the rejection of migrants from certain predominantly Muslim countries, that has stripped much of the moral component from American foreign relations and left him being lectured by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and others about his duties under international law.
“Her foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, has gone one step further, reminding America of its moral duty as the most powerful Western country and one founded by Christian refugees… ‘The United States is a country where Christian traditions have an important meaning. Loving your neighbor is a major Christian value, and that includes helping people,’ he said recently. ‘This is what unites us in the West and this is what we want to make clear to the Americans.’
“Behind the rhetoric is the idea that moral authority — as amorphous and idealistic as that can sound — has imbued America with a special kind of clout in the world, with a power that is different from that wielded by autocrats and dictators or by big countries like Russia and China.
“While the Soviet-era dominance across Eastern Europe undoubtedly was undermined by an expensive Cold War arms race with the United States, it was the Western Democratic system and America that many people looked to emulate, former diplomats said.
‘The Berlin Wall didn’t come down because people were responding to American howitzers,’ said Joseph Nye, a former senior State Department official and now a professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. ‘It came down under hammers and bulldozers wielded by people whose minds had been affected by the ideas of the West.’” New York Times.
Even if you ignore the fake news and litany of unsubstantiated accusations and misstatements in the presidential tweets (averaging 5/day now), exactly who we are as moral global citizens today is very much in question everywhere, including within our own borders. What place do you think morality has in our policies and political system in 2017 and beyond?
I’m Peter Dekom, and I suspect you know where I stand on this issue.

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