By: Katarina Huss and Vishnu Kannan
Since the 2016 election, commentators, former officials, and scholars have worried over the state of the “liberal international order.” The order, established in the aftermath of the Second World War, refers to the framework of international institutions, laws, and norms which have reduced war and promoted economic well being since the end of the Second World War. It allows states to reap the benefits of stability and economic prosperity, but depends upon states like the US using their resources to defend and advocate for it. US foreign policy since the Second World War accepted this responsibility and committed resources to that end. However, the present administration has chosen to pursue a zero-sum vision of the world, in which US prosperity must come at the expense of others. This rejection of the order threatens to destabilize it and impair its ability to uphold international law and encourage adherence to norms.
The implications of a weakening order are most acute in the realm of human rights. Central to the aspirations of the international order is the belief that universal human rights, such as those established in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, guarantee a better world. The United Nations Human Rights council reinforced this belief and gave members a platform to mobilize against human rights abuses. Previous administrations understood this advantage and utilized the council to advance American interests abroad while still embracing the human rights framework. Membership of the Human Rights Council also bolstered the image of the US as a defender of human rights abroad. The administration’s decision to abandon the Human Rights Council weakens an international body capable of condemning the abuses abroad and undermined a commitment by the US to participate in a morally justified world order.
However, the Trump administration has not just chosen to abandon the Human Rights Council. The President’s zero-sum approach has undermined the values of the international order by equivocating on human rights when faced with crisis. Domestically, the administration has promoted race-based violence, extended immigrant detention, and appointed sexual assault abusers. All while abroad, he has praised human rights abusers in North Korea and Russia, joked with President Putin about Russia’s treatment of journalists, congratulated the Turkish president for winning an election despite independent reports of voting irregularities, and most recently, refused to condemn the alleged officially-sanctioned murder of a Saudi journalist or distance themselves from the regime. Most clearly in the final case, the President prioritized a $100 billion arms agreement with Saudi Arabia over the appropriate condemnation of their behavior, citing fears that they would do business elsewhere.
The administration is actively corrupting the international order allowing human rights atrocities in Yemen, Syria, South Sudan, or Myanmar to continue unabated, instead choosing to arms deals and diplomatic ties with dictators. This transactional view of the world is a fundamental shift from the last seventy years of US foreign policy and a dangerous choice. The US is a key player in preserving the liberal international order. In turning a blind eye to human rights abuses, the administration threatens to undermine the promise of the rules-based order and compromise the progress of recent decades.