On July 4, 1776, church bells rang out across Philadelphia. The Continental Congress had approved a Declaration of Independence to inform the world that the goal of the colonial revolt, which had begun more than a year earlier, was not mere autonomy within the British Empire. Rather, the rebels were seeking the creation of an independent republic the likes of which the world had never seen. Their demands were couched in the then-novel language of natural rights; “all men are created equal,” they wrote, and “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” The authors of this revolutionary text warned all governments to respect these rights or else face the consequences: “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.”
This was a radical stance to take in a world still dominated by kings who claimed to rule by divine will, and it would have profound implications for the new republic’s foreign policy. Unlike their cynical, Old World counterparts, American statesmen could never be content with a realpolitik foreign policy based on Thucydides’s admonition that “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” The Founding Fathers, writes Robert Kagan in his history of American foreign policy, Dangerous Nation, had “unwittingly invented a new foreign policy founded upon the universalist ideology that the Revolution spawned.” As Thomas Jefferson said, “We are pointing out the way to struggling nations who wish, like us, to emerge from their tyrannies.”
Admittedly, America’s devotion to its ideals has always been incomplete and imperfect; in its early years it tolerated slavery and in more recent times it has done deals with dictators. Nor have our ideals always translated into foreign policy success; sometimes, as in Vietnam or Iraq, they have led us astray. But, on the whole, the United States has been more generous and less self-interested than any other great power in history — and that approach has made it the most successful nation in the world over the past two centuries.
Yet now the very foundations of American foreign policy are being undermined by President Donald Trump. The president has pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate accords and called into question the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement and NATO. He has quarreled with democratic allies, from Mayor Sadiq Khan of London to Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, while lavishing praise on dictators. Trump has called Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt a “fantastic guy,” Kim Jong Un of North Korea a “smart cookie,” and Xi Jinping of China “a very good man” who “loves the people of China.” Trump has told Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, who has killed at least 7,000 people without benefit of trial, that he is doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem,” and he has praised Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey for his victory in a rigged referendum that was widely seen as the death knell of Turkish democracy.
If Trump has any concern for democracy or human rights, he has not revealed it — except as a cudgel with which to beat the communist regime in Havana and secure Cuban-American votes. When asked to condemn Vladimir Putin’s murders of dissidents, Trump refused to do so, saying, “What, you think our country’s so innocent?”
The president’s senior national security and economic advisors, H.R. McMaster and Gary D. Cohn, wrote in the Wall Street Journal on May 30 that Trump believes “that the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage…. Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it.” In other words, this administration rejects the Enlightenment ideals of the Founders and instead embraces a Hobbesianview of the world in which the natural state of mankind is a “perpetual war of every man against his neighbor.”
It is worth briefly reviewing the importance of American values in American foreign relations to make clear what a profound and unwise break Trump is making with American traditions.
Initially Americans, as citizens of a small, vulnerable country on the eastern seaboard of North America, were conscious of the limitations of their powers and did not at first go “abroad, in search of monsters to destroy,” in John Quincy Adams’s famous phrase from 1821. But they did provide moral and material support to freedom-seekers such as the Greeks revolting against the Ottomans in the 1820s and the Hungarians revolting against the Habsburgs in 1848-1849. In 1898 the United States went further. Enraged by colonial oppression in Cuba and blaming Spain for the mysterious explosion of a U.S. naval ship in Havana Harbor, the United States went to war. The Spanish-American War could be seen primarily as a humanitarian intervention, designed, in the words of Sen. John Sherman of Ohio, “to put an end to crimes… almost beyond description.”
America’s first involvement in a European war also was guided in large part by ideals that could trace back to the Declaration of Independence, although German U-boat attacks on American shipping and attempts to entice Mexico into the conflict were the immediate casus belli. In 1917, Woodrow Wilson won a declaration of war against Germany with this message to Congress: “The right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts — for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free.”
Needless to say, the “war to end all wars” and effort to “make the world safe for democracy” accomplished neither of those objectives, and little more than two decades later another world war broke out. On January 6, 1941, before the United States had even entered the conflict, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made clear that he would back embattled democracies. “In the future days, which we seek to make secure,” he told Congress, “we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms” — freedom of speech, freedom of religion, “freedom from want,” and “freedom from fear.” “Freedom,” he made clear, “means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights and keep them.”
FDR’s idealistic commitment, carried forward by his successors, led to the creation after the war of the international institutions — the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (later the World Trade Organization), NATO — that Trump now treats with hostility. In keeping with the spirit of the “four freedoms,” the United States did not impose a Carthaginian peace on the Axis states of the kind that Trump advocated when he called for stealing Iraq’s oil. Instead, the United States offered the Marshall Plan to rebuild shattered societies and turn foes into friends.
Of course, FDR had to make certain concessions to reality — hence his decision to ally with Joseph Stalin’s murderous regime and to accept, at Yalta, that the Soviet Union would exercise predominant influence in Eastern Europe. But the United States never stopped resisting communism’s spread. In 1947, Roosevelt’s vice president and successor announced the Truman Doctrine, which would provide assistance to Greece and Turkey, with these words: “We are committed to the proposition that principles of morality and considerations for our own security will never permit us to acquiesce in a peace dictated by aggressors and sponsored by appeasers. We know that enduring peace cannot be bought at the cost of other people’s freedom.”
The U.S. record in the Cold War was hardly one of unsullied support for freedom fighters. The United States helped to overthrow leftist but democratically elected leaders such as Mohammad Mosaddeh in Iran and Salvador Allende in Chile, while making common cause with strongmen from Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire to Fulgencio Batista in Cuba because they were seen as the lesser evil. But the United States also implanted democracy in Germany, Italy, and Japan, and positioned its troops on the frontlines of freedom. From the Demilitarized Zone in Korea to the Fulda Gap in Germany, the United States risked nuclear war in defense of its allies without demanding anything in return. America also used its information organs, such as the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, to keep the hope of freedom alive behind the Iron Curtain.
The major exception to the embrace of idealism as a critical component of foreign policy occurred in the Nixon administration. Both Richard Nixon and his chief foreign-policy strategist, Henry Kissinger, did not allow sentimental considerations to impede the promotion of U.S. interests as they saw them. But the Nixon-Kissinger approach was not nearly as successful as it has been portrayed: The opening to China, for example, did not dissuade Beijing from supporting North Vietnam’s 1975 invasion of America’s ally, South Vietnam.
With U.S. power waning in the mid-1970s, both Republicans and Democrats sought to strengthen America’s moral leadership. I would not be sitting in New York writing these words had not Congress passed the Jackson-Vanik amendment in 1974 tying U.S. trade with the Soviet Union to Jewish emigration; two years later, my family moved from Moscow to Los Angeles. That very year — the bicentennial — Jimmy Carter won the presidency by promising to reinvigorate American “principles and values” at home and abroad. Although criticized for naiveté, Carter helped to undermine Soviet rule in Eastern Europe by championing human rights.
He was succeeded by Ronald Reagan, who did a masterly job of fusing might and right. In his seminal 1982 address at the Palace of Westminster, Reagan vowed “to foster the infrastructure of democracy, the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities, which allows a people to choose their own way to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means.” In fulfillment of this pledge, he created the National Endowment for Democracy, embraced dissidents behind the Iron Curtain, and funded “freedom fighters” from Afghanistan to Nicaragua (some of whom turned out to be extremists). He even called on Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. These actions helped to hasten the end of the Cold War. It’s easy, of course, to oppose oppression by one’s enemies. But Reagan showed he was sincere in his commitment to freedom by championing democratic transitions in U.S. allies such as El Salvador, Taiwan, the Philippines, and South Korea.
Human rights concerns would continue to play a major role in American foreign policy after the end of the Cold War, leading to interventions in, inter alia, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo. Idealism in U.S. foreign policy reached a high water mark after 9/11. After having undertaken the liberation of Iraq and Afghanistan, George W. Bush proclaimed in his second inaugural address that “it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”
It’s been downhill ever since, because democratization has become associated with the costly conflict in Iraq and the failures of the Arab Spring. Freedom House reports that global freedom has been in decline for 11 consecutive years.
This was not all, or even mainly, America’s doing, but there is little doubt that President Obama placed less emphasis on democracy promotion than did his predecessor. While helping to overthrow Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya, Obama pulled out of Iraq, ignored the “Green Movement” in Iran, and did not intervene to stop the greatest human rights disaster of the 21st century: the Syrian civil war. But Donald Trump makes Barack Obama look like Woodrow Wilson by comparison. He does not even pay rhetorical tribute to the spread of liberty. What Trump does not appreciate is that the “spirit of ‘76” has been a crucial factor in America’s rise to global preeminence.
Every previous would-be hegemon — Spain under Philip II, France under Louis XIV and Napoleon, Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm and Adolf Hitler, the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin and his successors — inspired decisive opposition from other states. The United States, by contrast, has aroused less opposition than any previous great power, for the simple reason that most countries are not afraid of us. They know that we are not motivated by purely selfish considerations. While the United States has always sought to promote its national interests, it has interpreted those interests broadly enough to include the defense of freedom around the world.
Trump threatens that understanding with his “America First” policy. He thinks he is protecting U.S. interests, but, in reality, he is destroying the “secret sauce” that is responsible for America’s greatness. If the United States pursues a me-first policy, every other country will follow suit, and the law of the jungle will prevail. Such a development will endanger the hard-won achievements of more than 200 years of U.S. foreign policy rooted in the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.