Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
It seems to me that the Trump administration is doing everything it can to corrode any remaining moral authority that the United States has in the world. Yesterday I read that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will disestablish the office that investigates potential war crimes. Though seemingly small in comparison to the many other actions the administration is taking this one speaks volumes about the attitudes of Trump, Tillerson, and others in the administration.
Tillerson has been working to concentrate the activities of the State Department on pursuing opportunities for American business and strengthening the U.S. Military. To do so he has been shutting down sections of the State Department that deal with U.S. Aid, humanitarian intervention, human rights, and world poverty. The decision to close the office which was founded in 1997 after the human catastrophes in the Balkans and the Rwandan Genocide is a major step backward.
Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson who was the senior American prosecutor and organizer of the Major War Crime Trials and Nuremberg noted:
“If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.”
Sadly, after all of Jackson and his team’s efforts at Nuremberg the United States stepped back from participation in International tribunals or the International Criminal Court. Tillerson’s decision is a further step back from the norms of civilized behavior and a step towards increased barbarism.
David Scheffer, who served as the first U.S. Ambassador at Large for War Crimes and now teaches at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, told Foreign Policy: “This is a very harsh signal to the rest of the world that the United States is essentially downgrading the importance of accountability for the commission of atrocity crimes… This sends a strong signal to perpetrators of mass atrocities that the United States is not watching you anymore.”
I assume that is the case. The Trump administration has turned a blind eye to the Russian destabilization operations in the Ukraine, ignores the human rights violations of Saudi Arabia and is likely war crimes in Yemen, sends decidedly mixed messages on Syria, and voices his approval at the crimes of the Erdogan regime in Turkey and the actions of Philippine President Duarte.
It is apparent that President Trump, Secretary Tillerson, and possibly National Security Adviser McMaster have forgotten like so many Americans that the true power of the United States is not its economy, not its military power, but the ideals that it stands for, especially when they are most difficult. The administration has embraced the survival of the fittest philosophy of Charles Darwin and like the other totalitarian regimes which cluttered the Twentieth Century is throwing away the one thing that set the United States apart from other nations, the ideals found in the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble of the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, and the Four Freedoms. While our country may not have always lived up to them, they were why people respected the United States even when we failed to live up to them. Timothy Snyder wrote: “A patriot… wants the nation to live up to its ideals, which means asking us to be our best selves.” The actions of the Secretary of State and President show that they are not patriots, but nationalists, willing to cast aside the lifeblood of what makes America great for material gain and personal power, as Snyder notes, they encourage us to be our worst and then tell us that we are the best.
It is important that we do not throw away what little credibility we have left, but the neither the President nor many in his administration seem to care. The administration bases its arguments on necessity and expedience and has no hesitation in lying repeatedly to justify its actions. But, as William Pitt the Younger noted: “Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.”
Robert Reich correctly noted: “Our moral authority is as important, if not more important, than our troop strength or our high-tech weapons. We are rapidly losing that moral authority, not only in the Arab world but all over the world.”
I am afraid that the further men like Trump and Tillerson move towards eliminating the last vestiges of our diplomatic and legal moral authority, and toward a transactional view of nationalism in which only economic and military power count, that it will not be long before our military and economic power is used for evil. This is not to say that it hasn’t been used for that in our history, but most of the time there were checks and balances, as well as self-restraint that kept them from being even worse. With every decision like this those restraints fall away and we edge closer to tyranny.So until tomorrow,