As a Foreign Service Officer for nearly 40 years, I was proud to represent our great nation abroad. We are a military and economic giant, but we were also widely respected for our commitment to democracy, human rights, fair play, and the values enshrined in our founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Our country no longer commands such respect because we have abandoned the very principles that made us so admired. Instead of acting as responsible members of the global community, we now take an “America First” approach, following a standard that was discredited 75 years ago as untenable as well as unworthy.
After World War II, we helped found the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) because we saw that our security could no longer be separated from Europe’s. We also launched the Marshall Plan, a humanitarian initiative to help Europe rebuild. Thanks in part to enlightened American leadership, Europe rose from the ashes of war; the continent is now free, secure, prosperous and a strong global partner.
President Donald Trump has turned his back on the postwar world we helped create. He undermined collective security by suggesting we might not come to an ally’s defense if it didn’t meet military spending goals. Of course, allies should all pay a fair share, as the U.S. has long insisted. But undercutting the credibility of our deterrent because a country’s military budget falls short of an arbitrary target is self-defeating folly; it emboldens our foes and disheartens our friends. We might take note that Europe is undergoing serious financial and social strains from contending with an unprecedented refugee crisis, caused in no small measure by American policy. A great nation does not take a green-eye-shades approach to strategic calculations.
Going it alone on trade
Neither does it follow a go-it-alone path on trade. The Great Depression was caused in part by trade wars resulting from the heavy tariffs we enacted in the Smoot Hawley law of 1930. If we again resort to such stringent trade restrictions, others will do the same, economies will shrink, and millions will suffer. Driving a hard bargain is one thing; insisting on winning every point is another. Others have constituents to satisfy, too.
Beyond these military and economic realities is the realm of values. Our president disdains a free press, even though the First Amendment to our Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and we have long championed independent media as a pillar of democracy. Dictators around the world have quickly adopted the tactic of labeling as “fake news” any reporting you find inconvenient. Not one of our prouder exports.
Most fundamental of all is the loss of decency and civility in our political debates and national life. Our Declaration of Independence proclaimed that “all men are created equal,” but we don’t seem to really believe it. African-Americans, still dealing with the bitter legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, started the Black Lives Matter movement to make that point.
Muslims, whether citizens – and there are some 3 million of them – or temporary visitors, have good reason to question whether the Constitution’s ban on religious discrimination is still in effect. Even the Gold Star parents of a Muslim-American who died in combat were attacked by the president, who also keeps proposing travel bans that courts find discriminatory and unconstitutional.
Transgender individuals are told by the Justice Department that the equal protection of the law concept does not apply to them. Minorities of all description are targeted by measures clearly devised to try to suppress their votes. Young people who have lived nearly all their lives in this country are threatened with expulsion, not because of anything they did but because their parents brought them here seeking a better life.
President Trump fired the FBI director when he declined to pledge loyalty to him personally instead of to the Constitution, as his oath of office requires. He pardoned a man who was convicted of criminal contempt of court and had not repented. He continues to malign the character of those who disagree with him, whether intelligence professionals, civil servants, political opponents, judges, fellow Republicans, TV broadcasters, veterans, or others on a growing list of enemies.
Disrespect for rule of law and democracy
The pattern in all this is a disrespect for the rule of law and the democracy we developed over two and a half centuries. Candidate Trump said many times that the political system is rigged and that he wanted to “drain the swamp.” He and his advisers have not been clear about what they’d put in its place, though the president’s often-professed admiration for authoritarian rulers like Vladimir Putin may be a clue.
What is happening in America right now is not simply another periodic political cycle, with one party up and another down. This is a fundamental challenge to our identity and integrity. To regain the greatness we once knew, we will need to get back to our core values – and to reject the tactics and policies that dishonor them.
Dick Virden was a career member of the Foreign Service, class of Minister-Counselor. He retired in 2004 and lives in Plymouth.
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