On Tuesday, the day the U.S. announced its withdrawal from the United Nations Council on Human Rights, the New York Times didn’t scruple to editorialize in its news story about it: “Mr. Trump has turned decades of American foreign policy on its head by attacking or undermining much of the rules-based order that the United States established after World War II. Previous administrations viewed the interlocking network of alliances, trade rules and international organizations as beneficial to the United States.”
Really? A survey of the list of international treaties and agreements the U.S. has refused to sign, or refused to ratify if signed, or withdrew from if ratified, is long and goes back at least as far as 1950. The University of Minnesota maintains an on-line list of treaties and conventions with human rights implications at http://hrlibrary.umn.edu/research/ratification-USA.html. We are party to only a modest percentage of those on the list.
Generally, we’ve been reluctant to join any treaty that specifies economic and social rights, such as a fair wage and medical care, as distinguished from political rights such as freedom of speech. In 1948 we endorsed the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, which includes both, but it was a tough sell — Eleanor Roosevelt was a key figure in that campaign — and since then we’ve kept our distance from such agreements.
Also, we’ve been reluctant to join any treaty that might hold us responsible for war crimes. Thus, we wouldn’t sign the treaty, which went into force in 1970, declaring that there can be no statute of limitation to such crimes. More significant is our stance toward the Court of International Justice, the principal judicial arm of the U.N. We were a supporter until the court ruled in 1986 that our covert war against Nicaragua violated international law. We then withdrew from compulsory jurisdiction and announced that we would accept the court’s jurisdiction only on a case-by-case basis.
Regarding arms control treaties, we’ve been highly selective. When they’ve seemed beneficial, we’ve joined them, when not, we haven’t. We joined the treaties banning the use of biological and chemical weapons (any state could develop those and achieve parity with us), but we’ve been outright hostile to the recently drafted treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons. We haven’t signed the land mine ban or the cluster munitions ban. We originally signed the treaty banning anti-ballistic missiles, but under George W. Bush we withdrew as our prospects of developing a missile shield and thus gaining a strategic advantage seemed to improve. And in 2003, when we couldn’t get a resolution from the U.N. authorizing our war on Iraq, we cobbled together a “coalition of the willing.”
What the record says to me is that we’ve been committed to “the rules-based order” the NYT story references only when we’ve judged that the rules bolstered our economic and military supremacy. What has changed is not our choice of president but the gradual erosion of our ability to impose our self-serving will on international institutions and arrangements. We no longer can get other nations to agree that Venezuela is a gross violator of human rights but Saudi Arabia isn’t. We no longer can get them to agree that Russia’s re-acquisition of the Crimea is a violation of international law but Israel’s occupation of the West Bank isn’t.
From now on either we play it straight or take our marbles and leave. Trump is content to leave. What will convince his successors to play it straight?
Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Tidings every Saturday.