As a country founded on liberal democratic ideals, it is consistent with both our best American values and our economic and security interests to support the peaceful spread of democracy and protection of human rights around the world. Since at least World War II, presidents of both parties have embraced this idea as a core tenet of our foreign policy.
In the wake of World War II, President Truman invested in the Marshall Plan to help our European allies restore their economies and defend their democratic institutions. President Kennedy launched the US Agency for International Development because he recognized that, in an interconnected world, the prosperity and freedom of people around the world is closely tied to the prosperity and freedom of Americans here at home. Under President Reagan, the U.S. launched the bipartisan National Endowment for Democracy and gave voice to our American aspiration that we "remain freedom's staunchest friend." Since the fall of the Soviet Union, American global leadership in support of democratic governance, human rights, and well-regulated market economies has coincided with three decades of unprecedented global gains in human welfare.
President Trump’s cynical “America First” philosophy has represented a sharp break from that tradition, surprising our allies and adversaries alike. Since his inauguration, President Trump has embraced authoritarian leaders while heaping criticism on our democratic allies. He has praised North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un as a “pretty smart cookie”; cited Egyptian President and perennial human rights abuser Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi as a “great friend and ally”; and called Russia’s authoritarian President Vladimir Putin “really very much of a leader,” despite Putin’s attacks on American elections.
Meanwhile, President Trump has routinely sparred with and criticized America’s democratic allies, while casting doubt on America’s commitment to NATO, a defensive alliance grounded in shared democratic ideals. Trump’s rhetoric and policies have led long-standing allies to plan for the possibility of a world without strong American support for the rules-based international order. Just as troubling, the President’s National Security Strategy failed entirely to prioritize democracy and human rights. This intentional devaluation of a traditionally bipartisan pillar of American foreign policy has shaken our allies and emboldened our adversaries.
Congress has repeatedly rejected Trump Administration budgets that tried to shortchange democracy and human rights. Congress’ Fiscal Year 2018 international affairs appropriation largely maintained funding for key programs and institutions that President Trump proposed to eliminate or cripple, including the United States Institute for Peace and the National Endowment for Democracy. Congress appears poised to reject administration proposals to cut the international affairs budget for Fiscal Year 2019. Despite supporting the president’s plan to gut democracy and human rights-related foreign assistance, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo affirmed at his confirmation hearing that promoting democracy is imperative to U.S. national interests and an effective “tool of American foreign policy.” He also committed that defending human rights would be a priority for the State Department.
On June 19, 2018, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley announced that the United States would withdraw from the U.N. Human Rights Council, claiming that the cause of human rights promotion would be better served by the United States abandoning the Council, rather than continuing to work from within to improve it. The administration’s decision was roundly criticised by human rights NGOs.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Large majorities of Americans support efforts to promote democracy and defend the human rights of the vulnerable populations around the world. These actions advance both our national security and our highest values as a country. Today Congress must lead that effort by supporting a robust international affairs budget, challenging the Trump Administration’s support for abusive regimes, and enacting legislation to strengthen U.S. support for democracy and human rights. Here’s what you can do to help:
- Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has placed a hold on $300 million of assistance to Egypt until the country's government meets human rights conditions raised by Congress and the State Department. In June, Egypt's Parliament passed a law designed to crack down on non-profit organizations and dissent. Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi came to power in 2013 when, as the head of the Egyptian Army, he overthrew the elected president Mohamed Morsi.
Call your Senators at (202) 224-3121 and ask them to support the Burma Human Rights and Freedom Act of 2018, sponsored by Senator McCain, for the establishment of a peaceful democracy in Burma and the appropriation of funds for humanitarian assistance. Burma is currently facing a human rights crisis marked by crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslim population, with only empty promises of action from the Trump administration. This bill calls for a comprehensive strategy to ensure that human rights are protected for all people in Burma, regardless of their ethnicity or religion.
Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA) have introduced the Democratic Republic of the Congo Democracy and Accountability Act of 2018. The bill would direct U.S. efforts towards putting an end to political violence and ensuring that free and fair elections take place in 2018. Call your Representatives at (202) 224-3121 and ask them to support this important legislation.
The Cambodia Democracy Act of 2018, introduced by Rep. Ted Yoho (R-CA) and Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-CA), works to ensure free and fair elections, political freedoms, and respect for human rights in Cambodia by imposing sanctions on individual government officials. After sham elections in July, which saw Prime Minister Hun Sen win another five years in office, Cambodia continues its democratic backsliding. This bill passed the House but now awaits consideration in the Senate. Call your Senators at (202) 224-3121 and urge them to support this effort to combat authoritarianism in Cambodia.
- Fact Sheet: Human Rights Conditions on U.S. Military Aid to Egypt – POMED, August 2018
- Why We Must Support Human Rights – John McCain, New York Times; May 8, 2017
- To Strengthen Trump’s National Security Approach, Promote Human Rights – John Bellinger and Richard Fontaine, Lawfare; Jan 10, 2018
- Democracy Promotion Under Trump: What has been lost, what remains – Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; September 2017
- When the U.S. Gives Up on Human Rights, Everyone Suffers – Foreign Policy
- Promoting Human Rights: Is U.S. Consistency Desirable or Possible? – Mark Lagon, Council on Foreign Relations; October 19, 2011
- Russia and America Aren't Morally Equivalent –Thomas O. Melia, The Atlantic; February 27, 2018
- State Department Human Rights Reports Selectively Criticize Abuses – Human Rights First Press Release; April 25, 2018
- President Trump’s Second Foreign Affairs Budget: Democracy, Governance, and Human Rights in the Middle East and North Africa in FY19 – Andrew Miller and Todd Ruffner, Project on Middle East Democracy; June 14, 2018
- The Democracy Project: Reversing a Crisis of Confidence – The Democracy Project; June 2018
- Freedom in the World 2018 – Freedom House; January 2018