Despite the flurry of analysis of President Donald Trump’s first 100 days, history will judge him far more on what he does for the rest of his time in office. Unless the Trump administration makes significant shifts in its foreign policy that are crucial for the promotion of U.S. economic prosperity and security, its hallmark will be the alienation of many Americans who believe the United States is at its best when it stands for freedom and fairness abroad as well as at home.
Whatever one thinks of the decision to launch missile strikes against Syria, the attack demonstrated that Trump’s approach to foreign affairs is not one of complete disengagement. What is unclear, however, is under what circumstances and for what reasons he will engage. This unpredictable approach risks unsettling U.S. partners and contributes to global instability – and potential security risks. Instead of waiting for a crisis, here are three things Trump should do both to promote U.S. security and to show American voters – and the world – that the U.S. remains committed to human rights values at home and abroad:
Use weapons sales to change abusive government practices
The United States has one of the world’s most robust economies, which can and should be used for political leverage. The U.S. economy benefits when Bahrain purchases F-16 fighter jets made by Lockheed Martin and Saudi Arabia buys precision-guided missiles made by Raytheon. Embraer‘s Super Tucano aircraft – being purchased by Nigeria – are made in the U.S. as well. But what about the cost to the countries where these weapons are ending up?
Trump is taking a gamble that Americans won’t care that Bahrain has imprisoned human rights activists on spurious charges that include promoting human rights, or that more than 10,000 civilians have died in the last two years since a Saudi Arabia-led coalition began military operations in Yemen. Many Americans have heard of the Chibok schoolgirls who were kidnapped in Nigeria in Boko Haram, but they may not know that some Nigerian women and girls fleeing Boko Haram have allegedly been raped by Nigerian government officials. Or that last year the Nigeria air forces attacked a camp for displaced people – killing over 200 and wounding countless more.
Trump can and should use these arms sales to make clear to the governments that the price of the arms includes real changes to support human rights, and that there will be a political price to pay if the changes aren’t made. Future military cooperation should be contingent on an improved human rights record. The U.S. has at its disposal a wide array of tools – from restrictions on arms sales to targeted sanctions – that can and should be levied against human rights abusers.
Welcome victims of violence and oppression to the United States
Trump claimed that his view of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad changed when he saw “beautiful babies” suffering from a chemical weapons attack in Syria. Those “beautiful babies” – and their mothers, fathers, cousins, aunts, grandparents – would mostly be barred from the U.S. by Trump’s suspension of all refugee resettlement and ban on entry for nearly all citizens from six Muslim-majority countries, including Syria. At the same time, Trump’s proposed budget would eliminate the Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance Account and reduce UN funding across the board – including funding refugee needs elsewhere. These cuts threaten to exacerbate a massive refugee crisis that has not only caused untold suffering but has also led to global instability. Trump should abandon the travel ban.
Protect civilians from harm in conflicts
In the short time since Trump took office, he has already engaged in a handful of dramatic displays of military force with no evident strategic vision. Trump nonetheless appears intent on expanding the use of U.S. military force in some areas. He has declared parts of Yemen “areas of active hostilities,” meaning that an Obama policy designed to reduce civilian deaths doesn’t apply. And he asked the Pentagon for a proposal to address the fight against ISIS that would include consideration of whether the military’s rules of engagement should be altered essentially to allow for greater numbers of civilian deaths.
While such a change might be legal, it would be unwise. Military operations that appear to be indifferent to increased civilian harm risks turning entire populations against the United States at the very time it should be building relationships. Trump should articulate a strong commitment to protect civilians in conflict and not adopt changes that could cause greater civilian harm just because they are lawful.
An “America First” foreign policy should promote the values of fairness and opportunity that are core to America’s sense of identity at home and abroad. Trump’s presidency will ultimately be judged not on how many campaign promises he fulfilled in his first 100 days, but on the enduring impact of the policy choices he makes in the next 100 and beyond.
Andrea J. Prasow is deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch.