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In Trump’s America, a Toned-Down Voice for Human Rights

But Mr. Trump’s administration stands alone, many experts said, for the divisiveness of its tone toward minorities and the media at home and toward Muslims and refugees abroad, its disparagement of NATO and the European Union and its praise of President Vladimir I. Putin of Russia, which have blurred distinctions between allies and enemies.


Ethnic Yemenis and supporters in Brooklyn protesting President Trump’s executive order temporarily barring immigrants and refugees from Muslim-majority countries. Credit Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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 refugees 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.”

The acting State Department spokesman, Mark C. Toner, rejected any suggestion that the United States was walking away from its international obligations or that the administration’s statements and policies to date had diminished America’s standing.

“We’ve signaled at every level our continued commitment to NATO,” he said. “On Russia, Secretary of State Tillerson has been clear that we would cooperate with Russia wherever possible, but not at the expense of Ukraine or Syria.”

“As for the new executive order,” he added, “this administration isn’t ignoring the plight of refugees or discouraging people from visiting the U.S. It is simply making the security of the American people its No. 1 priority and instituting a temporary pause so that we can evaluate and ensure our vetting processes are as strong as they can possibly be. In short, American diplomacy plays an important role in American security, a security which promotes our prosperity.”

Not all are so convinced. Though in its early stages, Mr. Trump’s presidency has for many called into question what kind of role America aims to play in the world, and even whether it wants to remain an example for other countries. Abandoning that role will have consequences, some are warning.

If America no longer presents an image of religious tolerance — a core component of its moral standing — it undermines its ability to make needed alliances, several diplomats said.

Some from the Middle East said that while they had been disappointed with the United States over the years, they had always valued that it had not vilified Islam as a religion and so it was possible for governments in Muslim countries to fight side-by-side with America against terrorism.

“Even in the days of George W. Bush, there was no feeling that Bush was against Muslims,” said Marwan Muasher, a former foreign minister of Jordan and now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he is vice president for studies and oversees research on the Middle East.


Former President George W. Bush with former President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan in Kabul in 2008. “Even in the days of George W. Bush, there was no feeling that Bush was against Muslims,” said Marwan Muasher, a former foreign minister of Jordan and now a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Credit Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

“By contrast,” he said, “Mr. Trump’s administration has seemed almost to revel in its anti-Islamic sentiments. There is no effort on the administration’s side to reverse that image. There’s no empathy toward the region in any way.”

For Hoshyar Zebari, a former foreign minister of Iraq, the initial decision to issue the refugee ban and include Iraq was utterly puzzling as well as deeply unfair, given how many Iraqis had fought on the same side as the Americans against the Islamic State and its precursors in Iraq.

Mr. Trump does seem to have been convinced of the importance of Iraq’s role in the fight against Islamic extremism, and the latest version of his immigration ban includes six predominantly Muslim countries, leaving Iraq off the list. Still, the anti-Muslim rhetoric “has emboldened extremists that this is the true face of America,” Mr. Zebari said.

Some of the policies Mr. Trump seems eager to pursue may also compromise America’s ability to lecture China about more tolerance toward Tibetan Buddhists or Uighurs, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey about a free news media or tolerance of the Kurds, they noted.

The Muslim diplomats also said they were little comforted that Mr. Trump seemed equally unsympathetic to Catholic and other Christian immigrants, evident in his building a wall with Mexico and deporting illegal immigrants from Latin America.


The wall on the beach at Playa Tijuana, Mexico. The Muslim diplomats say they are little comforted that President Trump seems equally unsympathetic to Catholic and other Christian immigrants, evident in his wanting to build a wall with Mexico. Credit Bryan Denton for The New York Times

Not everyone agrees that Mr. Trump’s approach is a startling departure from America’s values, however.

Some Europeans in particular tend to view Mr. Trump’s ideas as one more chapter — albeit with balder and more explosive rhetoric — in a long downward slide.

Hubert Védrine, a former French foreign minister, noted that while Barack Obama may have been “more elegant” and “refined” in his words, he pursued many policies similar to Mr. Trump’s, like urging NATO members to do more.

“One cannot describe the international system before Trump as working very well,” Mr. Védrine said. “It’s not as though it was a paradisiacal, idyllic world, and abruptly Trump appeared like some kind of Attila.”

Yet the idea of a moral component in American identity dates back to the pilgrims. The famous phrase describing America as “a city set on a hill” and thus to stand as an example to the world dates from the 1630 sermon given by John Winthrop to English migrants making a dangerous crossing in an earlier era.

The notion became a particularly strong principle in foreign policy after World War I, with the United States playing a leading role in the creation of global organizations like the United Nations. Those organizations, though flawed, have provided a framework for competing powers to talk to each other before resorting to war.

That moral strand was strengthened by World War II, not only because of America’s part in helping to vanquish the Nazis, but also its postwar efforts to help rebuild Europe.

These initiatives also helped the United States: Making European countries strong again was not simply an act of charity, it helped recreate markets for American goods.

Now, as America looks at minimizing its commitments to NATO and the European Union, there is the sense that it can no longer be counted on as a reliable partner.

“The most burning question overseas is, ‘Can we rely on the United States to keep its commitments, can we rely on you to lead in the way we expect, are you going to consider the interests of your allies when new deals are made?’” said Michèle Flournoy, the former under secretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration.

Instead, Mr. Trump seems intent to pursue a “what’s in it for us” approach to foreign policy much closer to that of Russia, where threats and lethal power are its chief points of leverage and where international relations are often viewed as a zero-sum game. Where that leads is anyone’s guess.

“What is very different is that the Trump administration says very bluntly that ‘America has no responsibility in the world and it will pull back,’” said Laurence Nardon, who runs the North America program at the French Institute for International Relations in Paris, a prominent think tank.

“Trump will still do things, but in a transactional way,” she added. “He will fight ISIS because it’s perceived as a true and real danger to the United States, and he’ll do deals that benefit the country, but not out of any sense of moral responsibility to help the rest of the world.”

Source: NYT > World

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