The United States has long defined its enemies as ‘rogue states’. Is the world starting to realise that Trump’s America fits the bill?
UNTIL the advent of the Trump administration, the idea that the US could be a rogue state was counter-intuitive to the common wisdom of mainstream political discourse in the West. The US accused such troublesome nations of that tag; the republic commonly regarded as the last remaining superpower could not, by definition, become one itself.
There have always been those who argued otherwise, particularly during the early years of the War on Terror, when the administration of George W. Bush named rogue states at will, targeted them for intervention and destruction, and pushed the limits of what international allies and observers would tolerate. When a nation is beholden to no practical or moral limitations beyond the whims of its government, how else can a rogue state be defined?
The concept emerged, unsurprisingly, during the Reagan years, when history’s most violent movie star proclaimed in between jelly-beans that the United States would not tolerate attacks by “outlaw states.” Reagan had in mind unpredictable and regionally powerful figures such as Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi and Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, who were able to exert an asymmetrical geopolitical influence in defiance of the Cold War power-blocs.
Now, in light of the current occupant of the Oval Office, Reagan’s condemnation of “misfits, loony tunes, and squalid criminals” has a relevance that Reagan could not foresee, and which will prove uncomfortable for the American political establishment which guards his legacy.
In the March–April 1994 issue of Foreign Affairs, the veteran American diplomat Anthony Lake wrote of “recalcitrant and outlaw states that not only choose to remain outside the family [of democratic nations] but also assault its basic values." In Lake’s conception, this applied to Cuba, North Korea, Iran, Iraq and Libya. These states, argued Lake, suppressed human rights, promoted radical ideologies and exhibit “chronic inability to engage constructively with the outside world.” It fell to the United States, Lake felt, to confront and transform these strange and dangerous regimes.
Twenty-four years later, the US has a president who has given voice to (and gained support from) white nationalism and resurgent fascism; it pursues domestic and foreign policy goals regardless of pre-existing obligations and human cost; and it reacts to criticism, no matter how diplomatically expressed, with a siege mentality of bluster, insult and misinformation. The United States has become a rogue nation by the very definition of the establishment wonks who dutifully propagated its empire.
Both within the US and across the West, opposition to Trump – growing more vociferous and enraged by the day – has fallen into roughly two factions. The first, embodied by self-described classical liberals and the small but prominent strain of ‘Never Trump’ conservatism, sees the present administration as not merely objectionable, but a fundamental divergence from American norms and institutions. Such critics, so vocally scornful of Trump today, remained silent when many of the policies he pursued were first formed, or the mechanisms he now takes advantage of put in place.
The second cohort of anti-Trump forces will not regard the United States’ accession to rogue state status as a surprise; instead, they will likely wonder why it took so long to be recognised. In 2013, long before Trump had even declared his candidacy, the political philosopher Noam Chomsky called the US out as a rogue state in an article for Alternet, writing that it has become accepted in the US that the country has every right to act as such.
“Hegemonic power offers the opportunity to become a rogue state,” Chomsky argued, “freely defying international law and norms, while facing increased resistance abroad and contributing to its own decline through self-inflicted wounds.”
America’s status as a rogue state may not, therefore, be a development that is synchronous with the rise of the Donald. However, his bombastic, shameless presidency – along with the pain and suffering it has inflicted at home and abroad – have made it impossible to regard it as anything else.
Below, CommonSpace examines how the United States lives up to the definition of a rogue state.
Withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council
The most recent demonstration of the United States’ disengagement from international norms has been this week’s revelation that the US will withdraw from the United Nations Human Rights Council, with the US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley describing it as “a cesspool of political bias”.
There have been longstanding objections to the council – mainly from the US and Israel – on the grounds that many of its members have less than sparkling human rights records, and that sympathies between such nations have allowed them to escape scrutiny, while targeting their geopolitical opponents for condemnation.
However, there are few outside of Trump’s most dedicated cheerleaders who would argue that the US currently has much to be proud of with regard to human rights: the world has looked aghast at the consequences of Trump’s ‘zero tolerance policy’ on immigration, which have seen an average of 45 migrant children per day separated from their families and imprisoned in highly secretive detention facilities.
While the US may have intended its exit from the Human Rights Council to shine a light on other rogue nations, its domestic conduct has provided its critics with too much ammunition to care. Today, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei asked: “How can they [the United States] be convinced over a policy, a procedure, to initiate such a wrong and criminal overture of separating several thousands of children from their mothers? This is who they are.”
Illegal military action
As an entire generation will remember, illegal military action is nothing new for the United States; Iraq will forever stand in bloody testament to that reality. Yet the Trump administration has not, despite some superficial isolationist rhetoric from Trump on the campaign trail, backed away from American disinterest in international approval on military matters.
Joint US/UK/French strikes against targets in Syria in April this year contravened the UN Charter, which prohibits the threat or use of armed force by states against other states. This has been backed up by the International Criminal Court, which has declared this prohibition as an underlying principle of international law. Unilateral military action, embarked upon regardless of concerns from the world community, has always been a chief characteristic of rogue nations. The US is, now as much as ever before, no exception.
Pulling out of the Iran deal
The Trump administration delighted American neoconservatives and its allies in Israel when it pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal earlier this year, barely acknowledging that it had ridden roughshod over a carefully constructed international accord. And why should it? Despite the entreaties of much of Europe, the US can impose its will without consequence. When Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said that the UK would stand by the Iran deal alongside France and Germany, he did not outline what this would mean in practice. Consequently, it has meant nothing at all. Rogue states abide by treaties and agreements only if they feel like it, with no respect for the systems of diplomacy and international law that underpin them. The US has long accused its enemies of such conduct – but then, they would know all about it.
The Muslim Ban
On Thursday, 21 June, the United States Supreme Court will hand down a decision in the case of ‘Trump vs the State of Hawai’I’, which will decide the fate of his administration’s infamous ‘Muslim Ban’. Over 80 civil rights groups will assemble outside the court to await the announcement, which may unravel one of Trump’s headline promises. But the fact that such a policy was possible is proof enough of rogue state status: one cannot claim to be a pluralistic liberal democracy if whole sections of the population are judged as being undesirable.
The Muslim ban suspended the entirety of US refugee admissions for 120 days, ended the Syrian refugee program indefinitely, banned entry from seven majority-Muslim countries, and lowered the total number of refugees that the US would accept in one year by over 50,000. So far, constant legal challenges and the difficulty of applying such a policy nationwide have stymied its effectiveness. Yet it is unlikely that the Trump administration will give up on its basic goal: to fashion the ethnic and national makeup of the US in such a way that they find pleasing.
Picture courtesy of Gage Skidmore