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The US Presidency: present at the destruction

Michael Goldhaber, IBA US Correspondent

Pic: © Thilo Rothacker

The Trump administration was clear from the outset that it would put America first and retreat from the cooperative, rules-based world order. Three years into Donald Trump’s presidency, Global Insight assesses the damage.

When Donald Trump entered the Oval Office, he found a note from Barack Obama imploring him ‘to sustain the international order… upon which our own wealth and safety depend’. The new President set about doing exactly the opposite. To a surprising degree, he has succeeded in dismantling the rules-based world order that took seven decades to build.

At first, even the wisest observers accepted the soothing false narrative that the President is too unserious or incompetent to cause much harm in foreign policy. After all, this is a man who confused Kurds with the Iranian Quds Force, and asked a Rohingya refugee: ‘Where is that exactly?’ In 2017, Charlene Barshefsky, who had welcomed China into the World Trade Organization (WTO) as US Trade Representative, regarded ‘this talk about trade war’ as ‘so much bravado’. She predicted his trade policy would be ‘scattershot but tweetable’. Harold Koh, who served as Legal Adviser in the Obama State Department, described President Trump as ‘someone who doesn’t have the skill to actually dismantle the system [and whose] attention span is extremely limited. He frankly doesn’t care about most of these things; he wants to be able to say he did something without actually doing something.’

Jack Goldsmith, who served as Assistant Attorney General under George W Bush, may have been the first to see the new President’s ‘onslaught on international law and institutions’ for what it was, in a March 2017 essay of that name. But even Goldsmith echoed the reassuring thesis that the President’s ‘malevolence’ would be tempered by incompetence. ‘There is a quiet way to pull back from international law and institutions and a loud way,’ noted Goldsmith. ‘[T]he Trump team will prefer a loud approach with high symbolic impact to policy achievement’.

Looking back, the more apt lesson is that malevolent goals, even if often pursued incompetently, may be achieved if they are pursued relentlessly. President Trump spoke a rare truth when he observed in 2017: ‘Foreign policy is what I’ll be remembered for.’

‘The big stupid bully’

The Empty Throne: America’s Abdication of Global Leadership is the first book chronicling the Trump administration’s assault on the international order. Co-author Ivo Daalder, who served as the Obama Ambassador to NATO, makes a convincing case that, in foreign affairs, President Trump is animated by a set of consistent core principles.

Trump’s entry on the world stage was a 1987 full page advertisement in major US newspapers – brashly demanding that we make our allies ‘pay for the protection we extend’. Within a minute of declaring for President three decades later, Candidate Trump returned to the theme that America is ‘being ripped off by everybody in the world’. Asked about foreign policy during the campaign, he reiterated that America is ‘the big stupid bully and we were systematically ripped off by everyone’. The implication was that strong nations who bully weaker nations are smart and admirable, while strong nations who don’t are stupid and laughable. The premise was that cooperation is a fool’s game, because even among allies, every deal has a winner and loser, usually measured in dollars. Foreign policy is strictly transactional.

Foreign policy is what I’ll be remembered for

President Donald Trump

Candidate Trump revealed that ‘[his] primary consultant is [him]self’ in foreign affairs. The so-called adults in the room were doomed to frustration, says Daalder, because they were ‘trying to mould a guy who’s unmouldable’. During his first summer in office, then Defense Secretary James Mattis assembled the joint chiefs of staff to tutor the President on the mutual benefits of the rules-based postwar international order. ‘This is exactly what I don’t want,’ Trump muttered, ‘it’s not working at all.’ A few weeks later, the President was at a meeting convened by his then Chief of Staff John Kelly and Chief Economic Advisor Gary Cohn. ‘I know there are some globalists in the room [and] they don’t want the tariffs,’ the President said, ‘but I’m telling you, I want tariffs.’ Little wonder that the adults soon left the room.

Trump’s speechwriters and ideologues hit the same notes in a loftier key. ‘We will no longer surrender this country,’ declared Candidate Trump, ‘to the false song of globalism.’ Former National Security Council spokesman Michael Anton scorned the ‘foreign policy establishment’ as a ‘priesthood’ operating a liberal world order that ‘no longer serves America’s interests’. Venturing into the lion’s den, the President told the United Nations General Assembly: ‘We will never surrender America’s sovereignty to an unelected, unaccountable global bureaucracy.’ Perhaps most tellingly, the President explained in his speech renouncing climate diplomacy: ‘The Paris Agreement handicaps the US economy in order to win praise from the very foreign capitals and global activists that have long sought to gain wealth at our country’s expense.’

In the ‘Trumpian’ belief system, all of America’s historic global agreements played it for a sucker by making other nations richer at America’s expense. Every deal not negotiated by President Trump is a bad deal, never mind the actualities. The world is divided into ‘Us’ and ‘Them’; and ‘They’ are screwing ‘Us’. Both friends and foes screw us by running trade surpluses and sending us their ‘worst people’. If anything, our allies screw us more because they also fail to share burdens. That America’s allies fall into the category of ‘Them’ is shown by two outrageous asides. The President minimised the risks of nuclear brinksmanship in the Korean peninsula by saying, ‘If thousands die, they’re going to die over there.’ Likewise, he dismissed the risk of ISIS foreign fighters fleeing Syria by observing, ‘they’re going to be escaping to Europe’.

Rhetoric and actions are demoralising human rights activists around the world and damaging the cause of freedom

David Kramer
Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor under George W Bush

Recent news only confirms The Empty Throne’s thesis. The US withdrawal from any Kurdish area of Syria lacking oil reflects the President’s belief that ‘there’s nothing in it for us’ unless we can ‘get the oil’. Moreover, Daalder notes that ‘in the same week Trump walked away from the Kurds in Syria because he saw no direct benefit to the US, he sent 2,000 troops to Saudi because they’re paying us. How much more transactional can you get?’

The transactional nature of the President’s Ukraine policy is even more evident, except the return on America’s investment was allegedly for his personal political benefit. After all, ‘quid pro quo’ is essentially Latin for art of the deal. The President’s surrogates could only explain their Ukraine policy to the regular diplomats as a cheque-writing transaction.

Events in Syria and Ukraine also confirm the President’s disregard for any expert other than himself, and perhaps strongmen he admires. It was Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who suggested the Syria withdrawal, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán who stoked Trump’s hostility to Ukraine. Vladimir Putin is a prime beneficiary of the President’s policy in both regions.

President Trump admires strongmen who flex their muscles and disdain niceties. As a citizen, he praised Putin’s invasion of Crimea as ‘so smart’ and mused that Iraq was better off under Saddam Hussein. As President, he congratulated Putin for rigging Russian elections, Erdogan for purging his opposition, and Chinese President Xi Jinping for abolishing the succession principle. He marvelled at the ‘unbelievable job’ President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte did of gunning down drug dealers in the street, and called Eqyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ‘my favourite dictator’.

Can it really be taken seriously that an administration headed by an individual so hostile to human rights… is leaving the Human Rights Council because there are autocrats on it?

Keith Harper
Former US Representative, Human Rights Council

The President’s fondness for rights abusers is reflected in doctrine and policy. In May 2017, then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson proclaimed that human rights should not obstruct US interests. In a leaked memo, Senior State Department Policy Advisor Brian Hook made the caveat that, actually, human rights is still useful for castigating our enemies. In this spirit, the administration has largely ignored historic abuses by China, Russia and Saudi Arabia, while condemning Cuba, Iran and Venezuela. ‘It’s human rights a la carte,’ says Ted Piccone of the World Justice Project. The President defends universal values, says Piccone, only when it pleases a constituency like Cuban-Americans, Jews whose views align with the Likud party, or evangelical Christians. In China, such an approach might be called ‘human rights with Trumpian characteristics’.

In July, the US State Department inspired much global laughter by rebranding human rights as ‘unalienable rights’ – and creating a new commission to divine them. ‘As human rights claims have proliferated, [international institutions] have drifted from their original mission,’ intoned Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. ‘We must therefore be vigilant that human rights discourse not be corrupted or hijacked or used for dubious or malignant purposes.’

‘Unalienable rights’ may be code for opposing abortion and same-sex marriage. An open letter from civil society leaders noted that the Commission is dominated by clergy and religious freedom scholars hostile to gay rights. David Kramer, who served as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor under George W Bush, points out that his post still stood empty when the Commission launched. ‘It is hard to take the administration seriously on human rights when it doesn’t fill the top position responsible for [human rights],’ writes Kramer. The Trump team’s ‘rhetoric and actions are demoralising human rights activists around the world and damaging the cause of freedom. No advisory commission is going to fix that.’ Nor will a narrowcast Commission take back the systemic attack on global institutions witnessed over the past three years.

The anti-globalist toolkit

António Guterres began as Secretary-General of the UN the same month Donald Trump entered the White House. Their paths have intersected several times since. In June 2017, Guterres voiced ‘major disappointment’ over the US’ vow to leave the Paris Climate Agreement. In May 2018, he expressed ‘deep concern’ over America ending the Iran nuclear deal. In August 2019, he voiced ‘deep regret’ for the US pulling out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF).

In June 2018, the US withdrew from the UN Human Rights Council, on the pretext that it’s ‘a cesspool of bias’. Two days later, UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Philip Alston told the Council that, as America bids fair ‘to become the most unequal society in the world’, it should be more concerned with the literal cesspools in its citizens’ backyards. ‘Can it really be taken seriously that an administration headed by an individual so hostile to human rights, an advocate of torture, is leaving the Human Rights Council because there are autocrats on it?’ asked ex-US Representative to the Council Keith Harper. ‘It doesn’t pass the straight face test.’

In early autumn 2018, America withdrew from a pair of treaties subjecting it to the authority of the UN’s International Court of Justice (ICJ). The US left the Optional Protocol to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations in response to Palestine’s suit over America moving its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem. At the same time, the US left its Treaty of Amity with Iran in response to the World Court’s acceptance of the Iran nuclear deal case. Ironically, the US had invoked the Vienna Convention when it sought the ICJ’s protection in the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. ‘The hostage case was a major step in international law because the US signalled a commitment to act consistently with the rules we’ve all agreed to as a community of states,’ notes the ex-State Department Legal Counsellor Scott Anderson. ‘Now the US is stepping back and saying “we simply won’t subject ourselves to this scrutiny”.’

America sadly celebrated the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the end of 2018 by leaving the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation, and by voting against a Global Migration Compact adopted by 164 nations. ‘Eleanor Roosevelt would be crying,’ says Jessica Neuwirth, Director of the Human Rights Program at the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute in New York. ‘What on earth is going on? We should be building on the Universal Declaration, not trying to tear it down! We’re really like an outlaw. We can’t go around the world talking about rule of law and undermine the international system that we were so much a part of creating.’

In the same week Trump walked away from the Kurds in Syria because he saw no direct benefit to the US, he sent 2,000 troops to Saudi because they’re paying us. How much more transactional can you get?

Ivo Daalder
Co-author, The Empty Throne: America’s Abdication of Global Leadership

Of course, withdrawal isn’t the only way to undermine a system. To advance the anti-globalist agenda of favoured constituencies, America also likes to dilute new legal norms, or to defund institutions it dislikes. Last year, the US zeroed out its funding for the UN’s Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees and pressured other nations to follow suit. The US routinely denudes UN documents of the word ‘gender’ so as to avoid providing a basis for transgender rights. In April, America brazenly used the threat of a veto to gut a Security Council resolution against rape as a weapon of war – by deleting all mention of abortion. ‘We basically said rape victims shouldn’t have access to reproductive health services,’ says Neuwirth. ‘It’s a new low for the US government at the UN, and it takes my breath away.’

Perhaps the crudest anti-globalist tactic was the vow by then National Security Adviser John Bolton to target judges or prosecutors in The Hague with US sanctions and criminal law if they opened an investigation against the US or its allies. The US amazingly followed through in April 2019 by revoking the visa of International Criminal Court (ICC) Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, who had urged the Court to investigate potential US war crimes in Afghanistan. A week later the ICC judges declined to investigate – and suffered no consequence. The leading ICC scholar Alex Whiting takes their ruling at face value, but not every observer will be so generous. Threatening the bench is a self-evident peril to both the appearance and reality of an independent judiciary.

But, arguably, nothing is more corrosive of law than to flout a norm you still formally accept. When the US recognised Israel’s annexation of the Golan in March, it scoffed at not only Security Council Resolution 497 – but the UN Charter itself. The ‘re-emergence of the acquisition of territory by force… is a violation of what many consider to be the most basic law or norm of international relations,’ says Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass.

‘Ignoring the UN Charter on Golan stands out because otherwise the US hasn’t openly defied the system,’ says Anderson. ‘From the standpoint of public international law it was ludicrous and shocking.’

Widen the lens to human rights or humanitarian law – especially immigration or trade – and it’s not hard to find other examples of the US openly defying global norms. When the US announced in July that it would resume executions on federal death row, it placed the federal government flagrantly at odds with the most basic consensus on the right to life. When President Trump directed US troops in Syria to ‘take the oil’ in October, it’s likely he ordered them to commit pillage (though it seems the Pentagon didn’t take the order literally, and won’t keep the revenue). Pillage is a war crime under the Lincoln-era Lieber Code, the Geneva Conventions, the Hague Regulations, the Nuremberg Charter and the Rome Statute. ‘Pillage is a longstanding part of the American Law of War,’ says former judge advocate and scholar Rachel VanLandingham. ‘I cannot believe we’re talking about pillage in 2019.’

Anyone who does commit a war crime can rest easy in Trump’s America. In May 2019, with no modern precedent, the President pardoned Lieutenant Michael Behenna after he was convicted of murdering an Iraqi detainee. ‘In addition to harming the structure of international law,’ says VanLandingham, ‘it’s also incredibly dangerous to the morality, morale, discipline and efficacy of US soldiers.’ Then the President flirted with a preemptive pardon of all Americans under indictment for war crimes. ‘The news that President Trump is even considering such action is [unprecedented] in modern history,’ VanLandingham wrote in an open letter with the former US Navy Judge Advocate Generals Donald Guter and John Hutson (a Republican). ‘[T]he danger it poses to the Rule of Law is staggering.’ Though the President pulled up short, he hinted broadly that it was ‘very possible’ he would pardon the accused war criminals after trial.

A vicious assault on refugee protection

If there’s any international right President Trump has undermined relentlessly it’s asylum. The President calls asylum an immigration law ‘loophole’, even though the right lies at the core of the UN Refugee Convention and Protocol. ‘It’s difficult to overstate what an all-out and vicious assault on principles of refugee and humanitarian protection this administration is waging,’ says Refugees International President Eric Schwartz. ‘[The] tragic thing is… the White House has gotten more sophisticated… [T]heir malevolence is not as burdened with incompetence.’

The infamous early strategy of family separation was quickly enjoined by the US courts, as was the ban on asylum between ports of entry. Trump administration lawyers have provisionally fared better with the current strategies, known as ‘Remain in Mexico’ and the Third Country Transit rule.

Under the ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy, launched in January 2019, America will turn back all asylum seekers at Southern ports of entry to await further proceedings, unless they volunteer that they fear returning and are deemed ‘more likely than not’ to be persecuted. In practice, asylum officers say they’re under heavy pressure to return all migrants to Mexico, or be overturned.

Under the Third Country Transit rule, issued in July, the US will generally turn back at the Mexican border any refugee from Central America who passed through a nation that’s signed the Refugee Convention, and didn’t seek asylum there. Now asylum seekers who have passed through Guatemala or El Salvador may be returned there under ‘Safe Third Country Agreements’ signed by those nations with the US in July and September. ‘What is so grotesque,’ says Schwartz, ‘is that they are taking a mechanism that aims to protect people and turning it on its head, by pretending that these countries are safe when they have among the highest murder rates in the world and almost no capacity to process asylum seekers.’ The UN Refugee Agency says that the Third Country Transit rule unduly restricts the right to apply for asylum, and raises the burden of proof for asylum seekers beyond the international legal standard.

What on earth is going on? We should be building on the Universal Declaration, not trying to tear it down!

Jessica Neuwirth
Director, Human Rights Program, Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute, New York

Whether refugees are forced to ‘Remain in Mexico’ or ‘Go back to Guatemala’, the most fundamental complaint is that America is sending asylum seekers where they fear for their lives. If the courts agree, then the US is violating the principle of ‘non-refoulement’. Enshrined in both the Refugee Protocol and the Torture Convention, non-refoulement holds the status of jus cogens under customary international law.

The US Attorney General (AG) has repeatedly squeezed the grounds for asylum narrower than international law. In Matter of A-B- (2017) and Matter of L-E-A- (2019), the AG declared that neither domestic violence nor persecution of a family member may form the basis for asylum. For Central American refugees who hope to enter the US, that’s very bad news. Yet, as Yael Schacher of Refugees International notes, multiple UN Refugee Agency guidelines affirm that gender and family may establish membership in a particular persecuted social group.

Putting aside the legal problems with each strategy, how can this policy arc be reconciled with international law? The UN Committee against Torture clarified in 2017 that states can’t drive away asylum seekers with ‘dissuasive measures’. Rights advocates charge President Trump with doing precisely that, again and again. ‘[W]hat’s the subtext for all of these moves?’ asks Judy Rabinovitz of the American Civil Liberties Union. Her answer: ‘“We’ll do what we can to keep people from coming.”’

A death blow for the WTO?

Free trade is another international principle that President Trump has relentlessly undermined. On his third day in office he withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which had been grandly conceived as the bridge to a 21st-century trade system. Michael Froman negotiated the deal during the Obama administration, and spoke to Global Insight in 2017, the year Trump entered the White House and backed out of the deal. ‘The decision to pull out of the TPP was a terrible mistake,’ said Froman, ‘and I think historically will be seen as a self-inflicted wound of the first order.’

Many would date the end of the ‘adults in the room’ myth to March 2018, when the US imposed steel and aluminum tariffs. To justify such a move, the US invoked the WTO’s untested national security exception. This was absurd on the face of it, as US military needs form only a sliver of the market and are satisfied countless times over by the domestic and allied sources that dominate the US market after years of Chinese trade tensions.

We’ve already seen a lot of damage to our alliances, the reputation of the US, to US leadership, to our institutions and particularly to the State Department and diplomacy

John Bellinger
Former Legal Adviser to the US Secretary of State under George W Bush

The EU and 29 trading nations have challenged America’s national security rationale. In a similar test case in April, a WTO panel held that a legitimate security rationale must objectively relate to an ‘emergency in national relations’ – and whether it does is a question for the judges. Nations, it pointedly noted, have a good faith duty not to end-run the WTO by spray-painting trade interests as national security interests. Clearly, America is heading for an embarrassing loss – unless something bad happens to the WTO Appellate Body first.

Amid the chaos, it’s easy to miss the significance of the President blocking all new appointments to the WTO Appellate Body. As of 12 December 2019, the Appellate Body will lack a quorum – and the supreme court of world trade will be closed for new business. America ‘is singlehandedly taking down a legal system that the other 163 countries in the WTO desperately want,’ says the former WTO Appeals Judge Jennifer Hillman.

‘At first the international community couldn’t believe what Trump was doing,’ says the former Appellate Body Chair James Bacchus. ‘Now it’s widely recognised that he’s perfectly content to put the world trade system in legal deep freeze.’ The President simply thinks he can win more through bullying than litigating, says Bacchus: ‘[He] believes in the rule of power rather than the rule of law.’

The future of the liberal world order

Daalder argues that America’s allies should maintain the global order until the Trump era ends. To a point, that’s what they’re doing. German Chancellor Angela Merkel responded to the US quitting the Paris Agreement with the statement: We are more determined than ever to make it a success.’ When America quit the Iran deal, Britain, France and Germany stated: ‘We stand committed.’ Soon after America’s TPP withdrawal, Australia’s leader reached out to his counterparts, and Chile’s foreign minister invited the remaining nations ‘to persist in the opening up of the world’. What resulted was the ‘TPP-11’ pact, signed the day Trump imposed steel tariffs in March 2018.

In a lesser-known example, the EU and Canada have modelled a clever way to unfreeze the world trade system. On 25 July, they agreed to resolve all mutual trade disputes through a process of arbitration that will mimic an Appellate Body appeal, rooted in Article 25 of the WTO’s Dispute Settlement Understanding. ‘This is a way of keeping the Appellate Body on life support until rationality returns,’ says Hillman. ‘The EU and Canada are among those stepping into the void as the US abdicates international leadership, and they deserve to be commended.’

Bacchus agrees: ‘The time has come for the other 163 [WTO] members to stand up to Trump’s bullying,’ rather than ‘watch as [he] destroys the rules-based world trading system.’

A coalition of democracies has also stepped up at the Human Rights Council, says Piccone. Over Chinese opposition, last year’s Council adopted resolutions on Myanmar, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, while renewing mandates in Burundi and Cambodia.

At the same time, China has been stifling any attempt to scrutinise its own behaviour, Piccone says. And although it is not yet succeeding, China is for the first time introducing resolutions to narrowly redefine human rights in terms of economic development. Former Ambassador Harper fears the US ‘has surrendered multilateralism to autocratic hostile powers’.

Daalder believes China is ‘too unloved’ to take up America’s mantle. At the same time, other Western powers lack the capacity to fill America’s leadership void for more than a few years. That raises the question as to what will happen if President Trump is reelected. Most immediately, America’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement will take effect the day after the 2020 election. But, what other pillars of the global order would topple in a second Trump term?

One answer is the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which expires in February 2021. The President has derided New START as ‘just another bad deal’ struck by President Obama with Russia. It covers long-range arms, as opposed to the intermediate missiles covered by INF. ‘If we lose New START on top of INF,’ warns Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Stimson Center, ‘then we’re back to the Eisenhower or Kennedy administration, when there were no constraints on strategic offenses as well as defenses… If INF and New START both die, it would be the first time in five decades there is no treaty limiting US and Russian nuclear weapons.’

What matters even more for nonproliferation, Daalder says, is the endurance of our alliances. If our allies don’t feel safe, they will build their own nuclear weapons, and spark new arms races. Unfortunately, President Trump has done little on this front. In June 2018, he entertained a crowd with a shifting account of his conversation with European leaders at a NATO summit. They asked: ‘“Would you leave us if we don’t pay my bills?” They hated my answer. I said, “Yeah, I would consider it.”... So I said, “Yes, I will leave you.”’ (In the same spirit, he warned that summer: ‘If they don’t shape up, I would withdraw from the WTO.’)

Can a President, acting on his own without Congress, unsign a treaty (as opposed to an executive agreement like the Paris climate pact or a political commitment like the Iran nuclear deal)? This remains very much an open legal question. To be safe, Anderson has helped to draft a bipartisan Senate bill that purports to ban Trump from leaving NATO. And that raises its own set of legal uncertainties.

Whatever President Trump might or might not try in a second term, Daalder predicts ‘the rest of the world will simply disengage from the US.’ The decline of the American-led security and trade regime would make America and the world less free, rich and peaceful. Above all, it would mean ‘a return to geopolitical competition,’ he says, ‘and we know all too well how that ends.’

John Bellinger is the former Legal Adviser to the US Secretary of State under George W Bush, now front and centre in the Trump impeachment proceedings as the lawyer for Bill Taylor, the top American diplomat in Ukraine.

It’s difficult to overstate what an all-out and vicious assault on principles of refugee and humanitarian protection this administration is waging

Eric Schwartz
President, Refugees International

Even if the President leaves office by January 2021, he says, ‘we’ve already seen a lot of damage to our alliances, the reputation of the US, to US leadership, to our institutions, and particularly to the State Department and diplomacy… I’m concerned about the damage to the institutions that we may have permanently withdrawn from. I’m concerned about the US reputation as a reliable ally. And I’m concerned about the US reputation for commitment to human rights and the rule of law. I think in some ways this could be the most important… The US has really lost the leverage to be able to raise human rights issues around the world.’

‘One of most damaging things he has done,’ says Anderson, ‘is to open the door to repressive activities that would have come under extreme scrutiny before. Actors like China see a limited window for action.’ Perhaps President Trump’s abandonment of human rights created the opportunity for China to build a gulag for the Uighur people.

‘My view is we’re on the precipice of irreversible damage,’ says Piccone. ‘If Trump wins a second term we’ll see a splintering of the human rights regime. The whole field of public international law will get weaker and weaker.’

Michael Goldhaber is the IBA US Correspondent. He can be contacted at michael.goldhaber@int-bar.org