President Trump claps as he walks across the South Lawn on his return to the White House. (J. David Ake/Associated Press)
Opinion writer

We are seeing the sad effects of President Trump’s renunciation of moral leadership on American politics and culture — the waning of civility, idealism and respect, and the waxing of contempt, prejudice and racial division. But how is a similar moral abdication — summarized as the doctrine of “America first” — influencing America’s place in the world? And does that really matter?

I posed these questions to David Coltart, a politician, human rights activist and former education minister in Zimbabwe. “If the reaction of the regime in Harare is anything to go by,” he responded, “I think many African dictators are delighted by President Trump’s accession to power because they perceive that he will not seek to hold them to an international human rights standard.”

In Zimbabwe, notes Coltart, regime ministers and propaganda officials have begun using the term “fake news” in their repression of the media. Trump’s cozy relationship with Vladimir Putin has given cover to President Robert Mugabe as he pursues closer ties to Russia. It amounts, Coltart says “to comfort that Trump will go lightly on Putin’s allies.” The Trump administration’s proposed cuts at the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development have also sent a signal. “The U.S. has historically assisted human rights organizations which have worked to promote democracy and respect for constitutionalism,” says Coltart. “It now appears as if there will be dramatic cutbacks in the funding of these particular grants, which in turn will severely affect the ability of these [nongovernmental organizations] to operate — to the great delight of dictators and the consternation of civic groups and democrats.”

So this, very concretely, is what Trump’s renunciation of foreign policy idealism means: delighted dictators, bolder attacks on a free press, expanded Russian influence, and betrayed dissidents and exiles.

It is clear why this would matter to a Chinese political prisoner, or a Ukrainian public official, or a Ugandan AIDS patient. They might feel desperately isolated, or live in abject fear, or be dead. But why should American citizens care?

Can a secretary of state be both "radically disappointing" and effective strategically? Washington Post columnist David Ignatius says Rex Tillerson is checking both boxes. (Adriana Usero,Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post)

I raised that question with diplomatic historian William Inboden at the University of Texas at Austin. “Most of the signature successes of American foreign policy,” he responded, “have come when our power and values acted in concert, which also furthered our national interests.”

In best professorial fashion, Inboden pointed to the reconstruction of Japan and Germany following World War II, which turned enemies into friends; the establishment of the international economic system in the postwar period, which helped raise a billion people out of extreme poverty and make the United States the richest nation in history; the crafting of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which has reduced deadly threats; leadership in cementing the peace deal between Israel and Egypt under President Jimmy Carter; interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo that ended ethnic cleansing and restored stability to Europe; and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which has saved millions of lives and earned tremendous goodwill across Africa.

Would any of these actions have been undertaken as a result of Trump’s “America first” foreign policy? “If we were to abandon our values in our foreign policy,” Inboden said, “we would be unilaterally disarming ourselves and giving up one of our unique assets.” But this seems exactly what is happening as America reconsiders its support for freedom, human dignity and humanitarian assistance. “Most of the rest of the world is still in a state of shock and confusion over what Trump’s presidency will mean,” concluded Inboden. “Other nations are starting to reassess how they will respond to a world without America’s principled leadership.”

This is a gathering moral and strategic disaster — providing new advantages to China and Russia as America’s priorities in the world come to resemble China’s or Russia’s more narrowly defined roles. A nation dedicated to transnational ideals that attract respect and emulation is becoming another nationalist power among nationalist powers. And all the wrong people are cheered by this development.

Last month, the former Soviet dissident and poet Irina Ratushinskaya died of cancer. She had been imprisoned in the gulag for peaceful opposition to the Soviet regime. President Ronald Reagan repeatedly pressed the case for her release, which finally took place under Mikhail Gorbachev. Two years earlier, she and about 10 other imprisoned women smuggled a secret note to Reagan congratulating him on his 1984 reelection. Their note, now displayed at the Reagan Library, said: “We look with hope to your country which is on the road of FREEDOM and respect for HUMAN RIGHTS.”

What imprisoned dissident would write such a note to Trump today?

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