December marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that the United Nations General Assembly adopted in 1948. While not legally binding, the declaration is an enduring success in world history and has influenced international treaties, national constitutions, and laws.
However, the declaration’s spirit is endangered today by right-wing populist movements in Europe and the United States that disparage multilateralism. President Trump expounded on his “America First” policy in foreign affairs before the U.N. recently, introducing a new “Doctrine of Patriotism.” These doctrines place national sovereignty and unilateralism over the multilateralism and cooperation that have prevented a repeat of devastating global wars that devastated civilization. A retreat from multilateralism is a departure from U.S. foreign policy strategy since the end of World War II.
Madison, Dane County, and Wisconsin have recently experienced an example of the draconian immigration policies based in the America First sovereignty of the Trump administration in the recent arrests of undocumented workers in Madison by the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. Statewide, 83 people were arrested.
ICE’s detention of people guilty mostly of minor misdemeanors violated an agreement with Madison and Dane County law enforcement to notify them of its plans before acting. The arrests are one of many tactics employed by the Trump administration in service of its strategy — elevating the cause of white nationalism at home and abroad. The president’s announcement that the U.S. will withdraw from the Global Commission on International Migration is another crack in the human rights foundation that the declaration helped build. This withdrawal makes it easier to ignore criticism of deporting undocumented workers from the U.S., restricting the number of legal immigrants, and the rejection of refugees.
Each of these policies is connected to America First priorities that include disparaging and withdrawing from multilateral trade agreements and the implementation of tariffs. Both actions disrupt the globalized supply chains that American business depend upon and reduce the markets for Wisconsin goods. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has benefited Wisconsin farmers and businesses. Many will suffer if NAFTA falls apart under a president whose instincts are grounded in arrogance, resentment, impulsivity, and assumptions.
Trump’s approach to foreign policy is the opposite of the sober and pragmatic diplomacy practiced by the U.S. ever since Harry Truman assumed the presidency in 1945. It is a serious blunder by Wisconsin citizens if we fail to connect the many threads that comprise the shoddy tapestry of Trump administration policy.
There are many examples of how the U.S. now disregards the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including separating children from their refugee parents at our southern border, and the continued violation of a court-imposed deadline to reunite all those children with their parents. The declaration states the right of people to move across borders, especially as refugees. Another example is the historically low cap on the number of refugees the U.S. will accept annually — 35,000 — while the global population of refugees exceeds 65 million. Furthermore, the U.S. now rejects domestic and gang violence as justifiable reasons for seeking asylum.
These actions and more, including discontinuing aid to U.N. programs that assist Palestinian refugees, mock the world’s achievement in the adoption of an inspirational document that elevates the causes of human rights, social justice, and economic opportunity. The irony is that the extreme ideology behind Trump administration policy runs counter to the belief of 80 percent of American voters that the U.N. is still needed, according to research by Public Opinion Strategies and Hart Research Associates. The president’s threat to reduce financial support for U.N. peacekeeping dues disagrees with the 70 percent of voters who support that contribution because it reduces the need to place American military personnel in harm’s way.
The declaration’s advocacy is modeled on our own Declaration of Independence; codified within our Constitution. Ours may be an unsteady and imperfect pursuit of human rights, but we generally have stood for liberty and as a refuge for those who are repressed in their own homelands. America’s promise is our pledge of greater opportunities for individual achievement and prosperity regardless of race, religion, or gender. This promise marks the immigrant experience in the United States and Wisconsin. Recently, we have expanded the definition of human rights to include sexual orientation and gender identity. It is a constant battle. Victory is not guaranteed. Yet this is who we are, or at least who we aspire to be.
Multilateralism does not threaten our sovereignty. The U.N. is a vehicle for our ideals. It has enabled rather than impeded our success. President Trump represents a return to a day of frequent great wars between major powers when each nation put its interests ahead of its neighbors. A philosopher once said that history teaches, but it has no pupils. It is time to listen.
Mark Condon is with the Dane County Chapter of the United Nations Association USA.
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