Last week, President Trump presented his national security strategy to the country, and outlined a crucial distinction from his two predecessors.
“We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone,” Trump declared, “but we will champion [American] values without apology.”
While Trump is not interested in former President George W. Bush’s interventionism in the Middle East or promises of ending tyranny in the 21st century, he also rejects former President Barack Obama’s endless apologies to foreign audiences and penchant for “leading from behind.”
To many foreign policy commentators, the president’s foreign policy outlook indicates a total lack of interest in human rights. For Trump, “America First” means “America will lead again,” and that leadership is not value-neutral.
Against conventional wisdom, the Trump administration has revealed in its first year a willingness to advocate on behalf of human dignity, even if in a different fashion from previous administrations.
Last week, the administration imposed sanctions, under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, on a list of foreign persons responsible for gross violations of human rights. Observers credit the foreign policy professionals in the U.S. government for bringing about these sanctions, but even before this announcement, the distinct proclivities of Trump had already made clear that distaste for an Iraq-style foreign invasion does not mean taking no action at all.
In particular, humanitarian atrocities, especially those involving innocent children, do not sit well with the president. Yemen and Syria stand out as examples.
With the largest humanitarian crisis in the world raging in Yemen, the president was reportedly moved by a 60 Minutes special that aired last month showing massive starvation and disease among Yemeni citizens, especially its children. Making Yemen’s misery worse, 60 Minutes emphasized, is a blockade imposed by a Saudi-led coalition fighting on one side of the country’s three-year-old civil war.
Though always eager to praise Saudi Arabia as a staunch American ally, Trump did not hesitate to chastise Riyadh for its humanitarian blunders. In a statement early this month, the president called on the Saudi leadership to allow “food, fuel, water, and medicine to reach the people of Yemen who desperately need it.” Since then, his press secretary has issued two more statements reiterating Trump’s preference for the Saudis to ease their blockade, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has demanded that Saudi Arabia allow into Yemen not only humanitarian aid but also commercial imports on which the country is heavily dependent.
This is not the first time Trump was moved to action upon seeing disturbing images of suffering children. When he launched 59 missiles against Syria after Syrian President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons this past April, Trump cited the murder of “beautiful babies” in addition to the need to deter the use of “deadly chemical weapons.”
Away from humanitarian disasters, Trump has also repeatedly declared that the U.S. stands on the side of freedom and the values that defeat oppression.
Speaking to the South Korean parliament in November, he lauded a “free and flourishing Korea” while condemning the North Korean dictatorship.
Similarly, this past summer, Trump stood in Warsaw and talked about fighting together with friends and allies “for family, for freedom, for country, and for God.” This certainly was not President Bush’s promise to wage a democratic revolution in the Middle East, but it was a full-throated defense of Western civilization, whose strongest asset, the president observed, is that “we value the dignity of every human life, protect the rights of every person, and share the hope of every soul to live in freedom.”
A template for moral ambiguity this was not.
For those who criticize the Trump administration as indifferent to values, they fail to understand that the principles that led to Trump’s electoral victory lie at the core of his foreign policy, and those principles are in no way morally ambiguous.
Trump insists that the first “fundamental truth” his national security Strategy has reasserted is this: “A nation without borders is not a nation.” This principle, embodying Trump’s tough stance on illegal immigration, is not the preferred language of the Washington foreign policy establishment, but it was a value-laden issue that galvanized Trump supporters in 2016.
Upon announcing his national security strategy, Trump reminded everyone that through his electoral victory, Americans have “rediscovered [their] voice and reclaimed ownership of this nation and its destiny.” Though he has spent little time discussing human rights with foreign leaders with atrocious human rights records, he inherently believes in the ability of the South Koreans, the Poles, and others in the world to shape their own destiny as well.
For the president who cannot and will not stop talking about himself, the underlying concept that powers his foreign policy agenda is that “the American people have always been the true source of American greatness.”
There is nothing value-neutral about that.