‘America First’ shouldn’t put human rights last – The Hill (blog)

Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump aide accuses news media of ‘propaganda’ Trump to stay in ‘armored suite’ in Israel: report Chinese firm promises Trump approved green cards on behalf of Kushner company: report MORE’s early days have been far from flawless, and

the president’s stance as it relates to global human rights issues leaves a lot to be desired.

Now is the time to turn things around.

Trump could start by immediately curtailing his effusive praise for dictators and strongmen. It’s neither necessary nor helpful, for example, for Trump to note that North Korea’s Kim Jong Un — the man presiding over the world’s most closed society — is “a pretty smart cookie.”

Of course, every U.S. president must work with some bad people. But Trump could be more discreet. Relatedly, he needs to walk back the misguided White House invitation that he recently extended to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte; the man is an unmitigated human rights disaster who doesn’t deserve such a visit.

Additionally, the Trump administration should make it clear that the U.S. will not be withdrawing from the United Nations’s Human Rights Council. The council is an undoubtedly flawed entity, but the U.S. can have more influence — and more easily draw attention to significant rights issues — if it remains deeply engaged with the Geneva-based body’s work. Withdrawing from the council would send a horrible message to the international community and ultimately be harmful to the long-term interests of America and its allies.

Finally, Trump should deliver a major speech in the coming weeks that lays out his broad foreign policy vision and explains how human rights and democracy promotion fit into his “America first” stance.


Trump and his team have been contradictory and inconsistent on foreign affairs thus far. The fact that the president has adopted a range of more mainstream foreign policy ideas is a step in the right direction, but the administration could speak with a clearer collective voice and emphasize that rights are an important component of U.S. foreign policy.

The abovementioned prescriptions are admittedly rather modest, but the Trump administration needs to start somewhere. Importantly, some of the people the president has tasked with overseeing foreign and national security policy — James Mattis at the Defense Department and H.R. McMaster as national security adviser — may not be very supportive of a foreign policy platform that flagrantly downgrades human rights. Let’s not forget that after Mattis came out clearly against torture during his confirmation hearing, Trump explained that the Defense secretary’s position would override his own as a matter of policy.

Unfortunately, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has gotten off to a bad start on the human rights front. Thus far, only U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley has spoken plainly about this topic.

Getting human rights right can be a tricky balancing act for any administration. That said, it’s helpful to keep in mind that actively promoting individual liberty, improved governance and democratic development abroad isn’t just the morally correct thing to do, it’s strategically sound as well.

After all, a more democratic and pluralistic world will always be in America’s long-term interest: supporting global peace and security, and greater economic prosperity.

When America’s president speaks, people listen. When America’s policies change, people from all walks of life — from grassroots human rights activists to ordinary folks to national leaders — take note.

If the administration maintains its current course, the U.S. will further embolden autocrats and undermine a lot of brave people working — frequently in unglamorous, challenging and maybe even dangerous conditions — to ensure that the tyranny that reigns today comes with an expiration date.

Trump, the ostensible leader of the free world, should urgently rethink his stance on global human rights. The potential benefits of doing so — for America, its allies and all those who yearn to be free — are absolutely “big league.”


Taylor Dibbert is affiliated with the Pacific Forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He previously worked for human rights organizations in Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe, and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala. The views expressed here are his own. Follow him on Twitter @taylordibbert.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

‘America First’ shouldn’t put human rights last – The Hill (blog)