A low-key rollout for an annual human-rights report has raised further concerns amid alarmed reactions to a divisive tone set by President Donald Trump on a range of issues.
PARIS — When the State Department released its annual human-rights report last week, it contained many of the usual tough U.S. judgments of other countries. Iran was criticized for restricting freedom of religion and the media, Russia for discriminating against minorities, Eritrea for using torture, Bulgaria for violence against migrants and asylum seekers. The list went on.
What was notably missing this year, however, was the usual fanfare around the report and a news conference promoting it by the new secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, as Democratic and Republican administrations have almost always done.
The State Department dismissed criticism of Tillerson’s absence, which came even from some Republicans. But for observers of U.S. foreign policy, it was hard not to interpret the low-key rollout as another step by the Trump administration away from the United States’ traditional role as a moral authority on the world stage that tries to shape and promote democratic norms, both for their intrinsic value and to create a more secure world.
Interviews with more than a dozen former diplomats, professors, human-rights advocates and international politicians, both abroad and in the United States, suggested that the United States under President Donald Trump was poised to cede not only this global role, but also its ability to lead by example.
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Many pointed out that the United States’ own actions over the years had eroded its moral standing — Guantánamo Bay, the use of torture on suspected terrorists and the civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, to name a few.
But Trump’s administration stands alone, many experts said, for the divisiveness of its tone toward minorities and the media at home and toward Muslims and migrants abroad, its disparagement of NATO and the European Union and its praise of President Vladimir Putin of Russia, which have blurred distinctions between allies and enemies.
Trump himself recently put the United States on the same moral plane as Russia, when Fox News talk show host Bill O’Reilly protested during an interview that Putin was a killer.
“There are a lot of killers,” Trump quickly responded. “We’ve got a lot of killers. What, do you think our country’s so innocent?”
The comment alarmed many because it underscored an approach by Trump, such as the rejection of migrants from certain predominantly Muslim countries, that has stripped much of the moral component from U.S. foreign relations and left him being lectured by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and others about his duties under international law.
Her foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, has gone one step further, reminding the United States of its moral duty as the most powerful Western country and one founded by Christian refugees.
“The United States is a country where Christian traditions have an important meaning. Loving your neighbor is a major Christian value, and that includes helping people,” he said recently. “This is what unites us in the West, and this is what we want to make clear to the Americans.”
Acting State Department spokesman Mark C. Toner rejected any suggestion that the United States was walking away from its international obligations or that the administration’s statements and policies to date had diminished the United States’ standing.
“We’ve signaled at every level our continued commitment to NATO,” he said. “On Russia, Secretary of State Tillerson has been clear that we would cooperate with Russia wherever possible, but not at the expense of Ukraine or Syria.”
“As for the new executive order,” he added, “this administration isn’t ignoring the plight of refugees or discouraging people from visiting the U.S. It is simply making the security of the American people its No. 1 priority and instituting a temporary pause so that we can evaluate and ensure our vetting processes are as strong as they can possibly be. In short, American diplomacy plays an important role in American security, a security which promotes our prosperity.”
Not all are so convinced. Though in its early stages, Trump’s presidency has for many called into question what kind of role the United States aims to play in the world, and even whether it wants to remain an example for other countries. Abandoning that role will have consequences, some critics are warning.
If the United States no longer presents an image of religious tolerance — a core component of its moral standing — it undermines its ability to make needed alliances, several diplomats said.
“Even in the days of George W. Bush, there was no feeling that Bush was against Muslims,” said Marwan Muasher, a former foreign minister of Jordan and now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he is vice president for studies and oversees research on the Middle East.
“By contrast,” he said, “Mr. Trump’s administration has seemed almost to revel in its anti-Islamic sentiments. There is no effort on the administration’s side to reverse that image. There’s no empathy toward the region in any way.”
Not everyone agrees Trump’s approach is a startling departure from U.S. values, however.
Hubert Védrine, a former French foreign minister, noted that while President Barack Obama may have been “more elegant” and “refined” in his words, he pursued many policies similar to Trump’s, like urging NATO members to do more.
“One cannot describe the international system before Trump as working very well,” Védrine said. “It’s not as though it was a paradisiacal, idyllic world, and abruptly Trump appeared like some kind of Attila.”