Tuesday, April 11, 2017

US Foreign Policy in Syria: America First v America's First Principles

A few months ago, I wrote an article, discussing that US foreign policy must be based on American interests, but American interests can be defined so as to take into account our Constitutional values.  

Last week's missile strike against Syria was a decisive action by President Trump, but one that seemed inconsistent with his America First policy.  Rather than assessing the effectiveness of the strike itself, this article further explores how democratic principles and human rights are consistent with American foreign policy interests. 

Trump's America First Foreign Policy

On April 4, 2017, President Trump said the following to a group of union workers:

"We enriched foreign countries at the expense of our own country, the great United States of America.  But those days are over.  (Applause.)  I'm not -- and I don't want to be -- the President of the world.  I'm the President of the United States. And from now on, it’s going to be America First.  (Applause.)"  Transcript of President Trump's Statement- White House Blog 

Prior to April 6, Trump's consistent position has been that the US's interactions in the world are a zero sum game, America is (he contends) getting screwed by other countries, and the primary, if not exclusive, goal of American foreign policy should be to get more wealth for America.  As a result, he's advocated that America reduce its role in the world, pull back from multilateral trade and human rights arrangements, negotiate "better" unilateral trade deals, and have other countries take a greater responsibility for their own security.  In short - "America First". 

The Syrian Missile Strike

Yet, on April 6, President Trump initiated a missile strike on a Syrian airfield in response to the use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad on his own people for rebelling against his rule.  It is unclear whether this action signals a change in President Trump's foreign policy.  However, whatever his motives, President Trump's missile strike took into account the human rights of non-US citizens, and in that sense, his policy was not consistent with America First.  

Human Rights, The US Declaration of Independence and US Constitution

What are human rights?  

The following few lines of the Declaration of Independence are worth reading, as they are one of the best articulations of human rights in history and they remain relevant today:

... We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed...  Declaration of Independence

The above quoted section of the Declaration sets forth the following ideals: 

(i) that all humans are created equal, 
(ii) that they have unalienable rights by virtue of being human, 
(iii) that such rights include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and 
(iv) that legitimate governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.

See also the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, 1948

(Note: the language of the Declaration excludes women, and there were profound contradictions between the words of the Declaration and slavery.  Nonetheless, the Declaration sets forth the ideal that all humans have human rights.)

Are All Humans Created Equal?

Humans are of course not equal with respect to intellect, physical capabilities, appearance and so on.   However, what the Founders had in mind is somewhat circular, but definitively true - that all humans are created equal in the sense that all humans are equally human.  Put differently, every human, by virtue of being human, is entitled to dignity and certain basic rights.  

What are Unalienable Rights?

Unalienable rights are rights that each human has been granted by God or nature by virtue of being a human.  Such rights are often abridged, threatened, or denied but because such rights are not granted by mankind or any government, they cannot - legitimately - be abridged, threatened or denied by mankind or any government.  See John Locke, Two Treatises of Government

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness 

The Declaration states that "among" these human rights (i.e. there are others) are "life", "liberty" and "the pursuit of happiness."  

Life:  every human has a right to live, and to be free from unwarranted violence, including torture.  In fact, this is one of the justifications for legitimate government; namely, that every citizen agrees to abide by just laws, and in return, receives some measure of security.  

Liberty:  every human is inherently political, and has some basic need for political and personal freedom.  Locke's view was that humans could maximize their freedom by consenting to a constitutional government and just laws.  

Pursuit of Happiness:  in contemporary America, the plain meaning of "pursuit of happiness" is the attempt to do what "feels good" in a psychological or emotional sense.  Trump in many ways embodies the notion that extreme materialism will lead to happiness.  Understood in this psychological way, happiness is not necessarily moral or immoral - a criminal could experience happiness by successfully stealing, a drug addict by taking drugs, etc.  In contrast, the Founders had a very different understanding of  the "pursuit of happiness".  They understood it as the human journey to live a good, virtuous, and therefore, fulfilling life.  The pursuit of happiness - in the sense of "a life that was worth living" - is in some ways the most important human right because happiness is an end unto itself, and all other actions in life are a means to that end.  See We Hold These Truths, Adler; see also Aristotle - Happiness as an End Unto Itself

The Bill of Rights - which is made up of the first 10 Amendments to the US Constitution - further protects these rights (for example, the 1st Amendment protects freedom of religion, conscious, speech, press, and assembly; the 4th Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures; the 5th Amendment provides the protection of due process of law; the 6th Amendment provides the right to trial by jury; and the 8th Amendment contains a guaranty against cruel and unusual punishment).  

The Role of Government

At the time of the Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1775), European governments were often ruled by men with absolute power, it was asserted that this power came from God, and that their subjects had no choice but to obey them.  That was King George's view.  

The Founders, relying on philosophers including Locke and Rousseau, believed that governments were only legitimate if the people (who possessed unalienable human rights) consented to such rule, and such consent was contained in a constitution.  Thus, legitimate governments were based on the rule of law, not the rule of men exerting violence and force.  

Consider Assad, and his long time ally, Vladimir Putin.  Both have demonstrated a willingness to use force, in contravention of human rights, against their own populations, in ways that are much more brutal than anything that King George did.  


A core role of legitimate governments is to protect the human rights of their citizens, and to enforce just laws that maximize individual fairness - in the sense that individuals are treated equally where they are equal, and unequally in ways that are proportional to their inequality.   This is one reason that the law is often concerned with precedent; understanding how a current situation relates to or differs from a prior situation is an important way to determine a fair outcome.  See Plato's The Republic (Plato explores justice, both as a personal virtue and as a societal virtue).  

In A Theory of Justice, the philosopher John Rawls (in simplified terms) set forth two principles of justice: (i) the liberty principle and (ii) the equality principle.  Under the liberty principle, everyone in society has claims to liberty and basic human rights.  Under the equality principle, Rawls proposed that it was in society's interest to treat the most vulnerable in society fairly.  

Rawls proposed the following thought experiment:  that humans put on a "veil of ignorance" and pretend that they cannot know what economic circumstances that they would be born into - they might be very rich or they might be abjectly poor.  In such a case, it would be rational for humans to fairly allocate of resources, support the weakest members of society, and thereby reduce the risk of being born abjectly poor.  Rawls similarly applied his equality principle internationally - concluding that it was rational and fair to protect the most vulnerable people in other countries.   Rawls' theory is far from universally supported, but it provides insight into the role of justice and fairness in government policy.  

The Application of American Constitutional Values to Foreign Policy

American foreign policy cannot be exclusively based on promoting human rights, but the core principles of America include respect for the human rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  The US State Department web site states that supporting human rights promotes US interests, and should take into account the following principles:  

(i) learn the truth and state the facts in all human rights investigations; 
(ii) take consistent positions with respect to human rights abuses; and 
(iii) maintain multilateral partnerships with governments and organizations around the world that promote human rights.  

US State Department - Human Rights Statement   

These principles underscore some of the concerns about Trump's Presidency.  To date, President Trump has shown a disregard for the truth.  Yet, the truth matters deeply, in both domestic policy (so that citizens can trust their government) and in foreign policy (for example, so that someone like Assad can't get away with killing his own people with poison gas, and then merely declaring that it didn't happen). Also, when things really go wrong in the world, there's a need for trust that comes with a track record of consistent truthfulness, and multilateral action among countries with similar values.  

Putin and Assad, like other authoritarian dictators, reject the truth and justify actions based on power alone.  Indeed, this rejection of US values is one of the reasons that Trump's prior glowing support for Putin has been, at least to some, so disturbing.  

Reasonable people can differ about whether or not "America First" is a good policy that will increase the US's share of international wealth and improve the lives of people who are being left behind by fast changing technologies, or a bad policy that will decrease US wealth overall and make the world less stable.  But either way, a lesson of the Syrian missile attack - and one reason that Trump has received so much support for it - is that America First is flawed to the extent that it assumes the only goal of US foreign policy should be to take wealth from other countries. American support of international human rights in Syria may not increase American wealth in the short run, but policies that respect human rights may contribute to making America greater and stronger in the world over time.

Over the coming weeks and months, we'll see which Trump administration shows up - the one that ordered the missile strike in support of Syrian children and human rights, or the one that disregards the truth, attacks the press, supports dictators, and turns away refugees - including suffering children from Syria...

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