Following the recent election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States of America, the prospects for a strengthening of universal respect for human dignity and human rights around the world are hardly sanguine.
There exists a long if occasionally erratic tradition of American leadership in the promotion and protection of human rights around the world, stretching back to 1919 when President Wilson carried his Fourteen Points to the Versailles conference, and later bolstered dramatically in 1948 by Eleanor Roosevelt’s leadership in the formulation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That legacy is threatened to fade into obscurity and irrelevance as this new Administration adopts an emphatically pro-American, self-interested stance in its foreign policy. We already know from the 2016 Republican Party platform that U.S. foreign aid is being construed first and foremost as a “critical tool for advancing America’s security and economic interests,” and that U.S. foreign aid must therefore serve U.S. strategic interests first. As for the plight of the impoverished and powerless people in countries where an authoritarian ruling elite has adopted an anti-American posture, Trump’s “America First” agenda and his pledge to “stop sending foreign aid to countries that hate us” are likely to compound their suffering. The RNC’s platform does make a commitment to the integration of human rights issues at “every appropriate level” of American bilateral engagements, yet it remains unclear whether this view of human rights is strictly linked to tightly legalistic interpretations of international treaty commitments or whether the deeper moral principles of universal human dignity and human rights will be accessed and accentuated by the new Administration. We can but hope at this stage, yet the Republican Party’s stand on sexual orientation and gender identity certainly begs the question of whether Trump’s team will even consider LGBTI concerns as human rights issues, particularly whenever such concerns come into conflict with the priorities of certain influential faith-based groups.
There is even talk within the Washington rumor mill of transitioning the US Agency for International Development (USAID) directly into the US State Department, intentionally obscuring the institutional division between diplomacy and development. This division has been very important to date, as “development people” tend to view their mission as being first and foremost about fostering freedom and human well-being around the globe, recognizing that this is a long-term endeavor that ultimately serves the interests of the entire planet – which includes America. The diplomats carry out a different and also important role, looking after the strategic short-term interests of this country as we engage with other nations around the world in a wide variety of contexts. There’s significant overlap between these two international frameworks and their respective roles, but they are distinctive and they are different. Were we to lose that autonomous voice of the world’s largest bilateral foreign aid entity championing human development, seeing it subsumed to a mere footnote in an American diplomacy focused only on “making America great again” in the short term, we would all be diminished.
Under such an institutional revamping in which the longer-term view is waved aside, the prospects for the world’s poorest people look particularly bleak.
It is of course still too early to predict what will happen to international development and human rights under the Trump Administration, but it isn’t too early to advocate for the importance of the principles of universal human rights that American leadership has long stood for (even if often imperfectly, or inconsistently) in the world. Soon enough we will see whether the Trump foreign affairs agenda will still place an emphasis on the human rights of women, girls, persons with disabilities, LGBTI persons, indigenous populations, and vulnerable minority groups beyond our borders (wall or no wall), and whether the institutional manifestations of these priorities will be sustained. Will there be another Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues? Will there be another Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons? Will USAID still have a Senior LGBTI Coordinator? Will the critical issues associated with these offices – central to human dignity and human rights – be what America is about any more?
This is more than parlor speculation for me. My experiences as a transgender political appointee under President Obama inspired me deeply, and while I was assigned to USAID I worked as hard as I could to support the Obama Administration and many dedicated USAID civil servants and foreign service officers as they took a principled stand again and again in support of the most marginalized people around the world. When I was at USAID, this may have been best captured for me when Frank Mugisha came to call. This quiet, poised, unassuming man of small stature but extraordinarily large courage, leadership, warmth, and heart is arguably Uganda’s most prominent leader of the embattled LGBTI community in that country. On the day of his visit, he was ushered into the office of the Deputy Administrator, who at that time was Donald Steinberg. A small group of senior USAID staff who were active on LGBTI human rights were also invited, and we sat in a circle watching Don Steinberg and Frank Mugisha earnestly discuss the profound human rights dilemmas faced by the LGBTI community in that highly homophobic and transphobic country. Mr. Steinberg had already established a dynamic, principled, and robust reputation as an unflinching ally of the LGBTI community, but not one of us was unmoved when he turned to the American flag standing behind Frank Mugisha’s chair and pledged to “wrap that flag around you” whenever that type of American support might be needed.
In short, we – the United States of America – had Frank Mugisha’s back.
Everyone in that room knew that there are many times when strident opponents will frame local LGBTI realities as being the product of “immoral foreign influences” from the Global North. Because of such distorted misrepresentations, the act of wrapping oneself in the flag of American support as made manifest in our universal human rights values, financial resources, practical experience, development best practices, and diplomacy cannot always be the optimal course of action for a Ugandan LGBTI leader, but the power and significance of that offer still meant a very great deal to each of us, and especially to Frank Mugisha. As for me, I felt what it meant to have a government take a principled moral stand in an authoritative and unambiguous manner, and I was never as proud of my country and of USAID.
That was back in 2012, and now as the remarkable Obama political era of inclusion, hope, high ideals, and liberalism rapidly draws to a close, I cannot help but wonder what the legacy of this time in history will be – and how much of the hard-fought progress founded on such principles will be undone by the radical about-face that our electorate has decided upon.
While Sinclair Lewis is often remembered by his statement that “when fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross,” what I witnessed on that day in USAID Deputy Administrator Steinberg’s office was flag-wrapping of a morally ennobling kind.
For the world’s vulnerable minorities, for the poor and excluded, and for all who are crushed by conflict, terrorism, violence, stigma, ethnic cleansing, sexual exploitation and trafficking, hunger, disease, religious extremism, insecurity, sexism, gender based violence, bigotry, corruption, or venal governance…what will it mean when the Trump Administration decides either to “wrap the flag”, or to stand aside?