What America Stood For
“Where people are desperate, it is still America they count on, whether they love or scorn it, and America they blame when aid does not come.”
By TOM MALINOWSKI
Mar 25 2017
After Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election in November, a foreign ambassador accosted one of my deputies at the State Department, where from 2014 to early this year I served as the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor. “You must be so sad!” the man, a representative of a Central Asian government, said, grinning widely. “All this talk of elections being important, of democracy being important, and now look at you! Now even your new president says there were 3 million illegal votes in your election! … You must all feel so stupid these days.”
Since then, the global club of autocrats has been crowing about Trump. Sudan’s dictator Omar al Bashir praised him for focusing “on the interests of the American citizen, as opposed to those who talk about democracy, human rights, and transparency.” Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei thanked him for showing “America’s true face” by trying to ban Muslim immigration. The Cambodian government justified attacks on journalists by saying Trump, too, recognizes that “news published by [international] media institutions does not reflect the real situation.”
Trump, as they’ve seen, takes no interest in pestering them about their domestic issues. They’ve heard him echo their propaganda that America is too crooked and corrupt to preach moral standards to others. This makes me sad. But something in the dictators’ delight also makes me a little proud—it’s an unintended tribute to what America has stood for, until very recently at least. Those cheering a hoped-for demise of the American idea remind us how much that idea has mattered to the world.
The desire to help those struggling abroad gain the freedoms enjoyed here at home has remained a uniquely unifying force in American politics. Over the years, Democratic internationalists have found common cause with Republican anti-communists, who’ve aligned with liberal Amnesty International volunteers, who’ve sided with conservative church groups sponsoring refugees and fighting human trafficking, behind the belief that the United States should promote something beyond its immediate self-interest.
Traditionally, U.S. presidents have used their farewell addresses to bolster this vision. Barack Obama said that America’s rivals will never “match our influence unless we give up what we stand for.” George W. Bush declared that “freeing people from oppression and despair is eternally right.” Bill Clinton said that if history has “taught us anything, it is that we achieve our aims by defending our values and leading the forces of freedom and peace.” Ronald Reagan brought his presidency to a close with a story about a Vietnamese refugee, peering up from his boat at his rescuers on a U.S. aircraft carrier and calling out: “Hello American sailor. Hello freedom man.”
But through it all, the grim specter of “America First” has stalked the country. Its last, most notorious incarnation, the Charles Lindbergh-led movement to keep the United States out of World War II, was far from a fringe phenomenon. It had a seductive, twisted logic: While Hitler’s crimes were terrible, and Germany’s Jewish, British, Polish, and French victims understandably sought America’s help, the country’s responsibility was to itself, Lindbergh argued. Joining Europe’s eternal wars would not resolve them. Building up the military and defending the homeland, not wasting America’s strength abroad, would safeguard its freedom.
Americans overwhelmingly agreed with this reasoning until it was shattered—not by a more persuasive counter-argument, but by the horror of Pearl Harbor. Even then, before technology made distance near-obsolete, it became obvious that oceans alone would not protect America from far-away tyranny. So Americans went to war, not just for themselves, but for FDR’s Four Freedoms. American GIs took pride not just in winning battles, but in liberating death camps.
The war’s horrors spurred Washington to champion what is still known, somewhat clumsily, as the post-World War II liberal international order: a network of institutions and alliances founded on the idea that nations have obligations to each other, designed in principle, if not always in practice, to defend democratic ideals. The United States helped rebuild Germany and Japan as democracies so they could be pillars of this new order, backed decolonization in Africa and Asia, and persuaded the new United Nations to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Leading with its values gave the United States a sense of purpose in the Cold War. It won that struggle, in part, because it articulated aims that appealed to people on both sides of the Iron Curtain—independence for the Baltic States; freedom of choice for the Hungarians, Czechs, and Poles; and security guarantees to the Soviet Union that came with promises to respect human rights. Of course, America was selective, directing the rhetoric of freedom at its enemies, not its friends. What of its backing of dictators like Pinochet and the Shah of Iran, or its bombing of Vietnam and Cambodia, or its crimes of racism at home? But these wrongs provoked debate in part because they so clearly contradicted American ideals, and because Americans took their self-image seriously.