When the State Department released its annual human rights report last week, it contained many of the usual tough American judgments of other countries. Iran was criticized for restricting freedom of religion and the media; Russia for discriminating against minorities; Eritrea for using torture; Bulgaria for violence against migrants and asylum seekers. The list went on.
What was notably missing this year, however, was the usual fanfare around the report and a news conference promoting it by the new secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, as Democratic and Republican administrations have almost always done.
The State Department dismissed criticism of Mr. Tillerson’s absence, which came even from some Republicans. But for observers of American foreign policy, it was hard not to interpret the low-key rollout as another step by the Trump administration away from America’s traditional role as a moral authority on the world stage that tries to shape and promote democratic norms, both for their intrinsic value and to create a more secure world.
Interviews with more than a dozen former diplomats, professors, human rights advocates and international politicians, both abroad and in the United States, suggested that the United States under President Trump was poised to cede not only this global role, but also its ability to lead by example.
Many pointed out that America’s own actions over the years have already eroded its moral standing — Guantánamo Bay, the use of torture on suspected terrorists, the civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, to name a few.
But Mr. Trump’s administration stands alone, many experts said, for the divisiveness of its tone toward minorities and the media at home and toward Muslims and refugees abroad, its disparagement of NATO and the European Union and its praise of President Vladimir I. Putin of Russia, which have blurred distinctions between allies and enemies.
Mr. Trump himself recently put the United States on the same moral plane as Russia, when the Fox News talk show host Bill O’Reilly protested during an interview that Mr. Putin was a killer.
“There are a lot of killers,” Mr. Trump quickly responded. “We’ve got a lot of killers. What, do you think our country’s so innocent?”
The comment alarmed many because it underscored an approach by Mr. Trump, like the rejection of refugees from certain predominantly Muslim countries, that has stripped much of the moral component from American foreign relations and left him being lectured by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and others about his duties under international law.
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