John Podesta, the chair of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, served as counselor to President Barack Obama and chief of staff to President Bill Clinton.
As President Trump makes his first foreign trip as commander in chief, his erratic behavior and mounting political-legal woes aren’t the only cause of the United States’ declining prestige in the eyes of foreign governments. On issue after issue involving international aid, development and governance, Trump’s missteps — executed or planned — are contributing significantly to allies’ skepticism and worries about U.S. policy.
When he sits down with his Group of Seven partners in Sicily on Friday, Trump will have to defend the fact that his administration is pursuing an unrelenting war on the poorest of the poor in the developing world, particularly women. Last week, the administration made good on one of Trump’s first acts in office — to widely expand what is known as the “global gag rule ” — placing draconian restrictions not only on the operations of family planning organizations, but even on health workers dealing with issues unrelated to abortion and reproductive rights, such as malaria and HIV/AIDS. The end result will inevitably be tens of thousands of easily preventable deaths, if not more, and, ironically, hundreds of thousands more abortions around the globe, as poor women in the developing world are denied access to contraception and other essential health services.
Trump has also proposed slashing international development funding by nearly a third, a cut so deep that it would likely force the U.S. Agency for International Development to shutter its presence in 30 or more countries. Not surprisingly, more than 120 retired three- and four-star generals and admirals wrote to Congress soon after these cuts were proposed, warning that U.S. development agencies “are critical to preventing conflict and reducing the need to put our men and women in uniform in harm’s way.” The recently concluded budget negotiation for the remainder of this fiscal year rejected Trump’s retreat from global leadership, but the cuts remain on the table in the president’s first full-year budget.
Equally concerning has been the Trump administration’s approach to governance and the corrosive impact it will have on the many groups and individuals fighting for representative and accountable institutions in the developing world. Trump has showered praise on Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte even as Duterte has bragged about personally conducting extrajudicial killings. Trump appears unconcerned about the steady slide toward authoritarianism in Turkey, and his attraction to Russian President Vladimir Putin is now the source of nearly daily White House crises. (Putin will surely applaud Trump’s desire to cut aid to Ukraine by two-thirds.)
With little public fanfare, Trump and his allies have dismantled key regulatory frameworks and multilateral initiatives that have been an important bulwark for increased international transparency and the protection of human rights, such as the Extractives Industry Transparency Initiative, the conflict minerals disclosure requirement in the Dodd-Frank law, and the Open Government Partnership (OGP). To date, the White House has not acknowledged the OGP’s existence or signaled whether it will continue to participate in the initiative. Given the administration’s general hostility to transparency and ethics, it seems unlikely that it will commit itself to additional open- government reforms through the submission of a new OGP national action plan, which is due in June. Trump has also called the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act a “horrible law ” and has appointed a public critic of the FCPA to chair the Securities and Exchange Commission, which enforces the law. In each of these instances, Trump seems to be making the case that sunlight is to be feared — and indeed, for fans of authoritarianism, cronyism and corruption, it is.
The business dealings of the Trump family and the raft of conflicts of interest that accompany them continue to send a clear signal to every would-be despot in the developing world that profiting from government service is an acceptable norm. Who would take seriously a lecture from Washington on the impact of corruption these days? What are the ultimate costs to this nation and to the world of a U.S. president so quick to squander our moral leadership and power of example?
In August 2015, all 193 member states of the United Nations agreed to an ambitious new agenda, the Sustainable Development Goals . The core of the agenda: to eradicate extreme poverty within 15 years, end hunger and make major strides against global killers such as malaria and HIV/AIDS.
But what was revolutionary about the goals was the willingness of nations such as China and Russia to concede that such sweeping social and economic ambitions would not become a reality unless the international community supported peaceful and inclusive societies, promoted the rule of law, combated corruption, ensured public access to government information and enforced the law in a nondiscriminatory fashion. Getting every nation to recognize that lasting prosperity comes from strong and accountable institutions was a historic step forward.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s approach to development, and to governing in general, appears to be an equally historic step — backward.
If there is a silver lining to all this, it is that the Sustainable Development Goals are owned not by any single nation or group of actors. They represent a global call to action to combat despair, poverty and disease. Everyone, from governments to civil society to the business community, has a part to play in advancing these goals — even if Trump’s abdication of U.S. leadership makes everyone else’s job that much harder.