According to opinion pieces in CNN, the New York Times, and elsewhere recently, America’s moral authority in the world is being compromised by the intemperate language often used by their new president towards its allies and his own citizens. An easy response might be, “Duh. Ya think?!”
There are two underlying assumptions implicit in the phrase “eroding America’s moral authority”. One is that America does have moral authority in the world; the other is that it is simply eroding as opposed to being fully eroded. As I attempted to do in a previous post regarding the phrase “leader of the free world”, I’ll try to unpack this notion of America’s moral authority and where it currently stands, if it stands at all.
What is moral authority? It has many definitions, but of primary importance is that decisions and actions are made based on principles of truth and justice. There is an expectation that moral authority comes from an individual or institution that is respected for being of strong moral fibre and solid knowledge, and for striving for good outcomes for the “right” reasons, not just for self-interest.
The U.S. has rightfully been seen in this capacity since World War II because when they did enter the war, they made the difference in saving Europe from Hitler. Subsequently, through NATO, they have played a pivotal role in ensuring the continuance of a free and open European society. No-one can ever suggest that the past 70 years of peace in Europe would have been possible without U.S. involvement. That is a powerful example of the U.S. demonstrating moral authority.
A related term used in the U.S. is American “exceptionalism”. This also has more than one meaning, but for most people it brings to mind the model of egalitarianism, democracy, capitalism, and as well a special mission to bring this model to the rest of the world. For some number of decades people could believe this, or at least the ideal of it. The inscription on the Statue of Liberty has inspired millions: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.” My husband and I, up here in Canada, have been moved every year as we watch the Memorial Day Concert in Washington, D.C. on PBS; it has often ended with General Colin Powell leading the singing of “Let there be peace on Earth.”
Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me.
Let there be peace on Earth, the peace that was meant to be.
With God as our Father, brothers all are we.
Let me walk with my brothers, in perfect harmony.
If these messages were meant to reflect American exceptionalism, the world could buy into that.
Maybe it’s partly that 70 years is a long time for one model to work. Maybe it’s because the multiple stresses of hugely disruptive technologies accelerating changes to business models and social interactions are just too much for too many people. Maybe human greed just gets in the way. Maybe it’s just easier to blame others for the fact that your world isn’t as perfect as you’d like than to try to work together to make things better for more people. But for whatever reasons, those messages of hope and inclusiveness no longer resonate with as many Americans as one might have hoped.
With that in mind, if any person other than Donald Trump had become the 45th president of the U.S., I think we could probably could agree that America’s moral authority was eroding, because it turns out that its own model has many cracks, hence the toxic election of 2016. Eroding, but not dead, just perhaps on a bit of life support. But, sorry Americans, after the first 99 days of the current presidency, I’m afraid America’s moral authority is gone, at least for now. Why? Where to start.
- The actual encouragement by the country’s elected leader, using his own words as a model, for citizens to voice their hate and distrust of their fellow citizens.
- The disrespectful, even nasty, manner in which the elected leader of the country speaks about allies and non-aligned countries alike – often more disrespectful and contemptuous to allies than to adversaries, all the while demonstrating incomplete understanding of issues as well as manners.
- Bombing a site in Syria because the elected leader was so moved by children being gassed (a difficult but reasonable response), but refusing to allow any of the millions of displaced Syrian families to be resettled in America. Millions of Syrian children.
- Cutting foreign aid for starving, vulnerable dispossessed people in struggling parts of the world.
- Just today, the country’s elected leader threatened South Korea to pay up for the U.S. military expenditures there. South Korea. Does he know that Seoul is sitting 35 miles from the border with North Korea? Does he know that the U.S. was instrumental in establishing the DMZ and in keeping the military presence? Does he know that there are 25.6 million people in Seoul, who are at far greater risk from the threat of North Korea than the U.S.? Does he realize that he has been provoking a dangerous, isolated young leader of a rogue state at South Korea’s border to no constructive effect?
The U.S. should feel free – justifiably so – to speak of their military authority, with which no-one would argue. However, the current president campaigned on a platform of ending the concept of American “exceptionalism” and its long-time policy of using U.S. force when necessary in order to export liberal democracy. There may have been plenty of self-interest involved in the past, and there may have been times when actions were deplored by many and even eventually regretted by the implementers. But there was an expectation within the U.S. that actions were to be taken for morally right reasons. I’ll even add that there was an expectation that its leader would treat others with respect and human decency. That is what constitutes moral authority. The world needs this America back again.
There’s a lot of food for thought in this post. Donald Trump is an embarrassment, and what I find shocking is that his approval rating, though low, isn’t zero. It’s hard to believe he’s been squatting in the White House for only 99 days. It feels longer.
I know. It’s all hard to fathom. I get that there are many disaffected people who see Trump as their saviour, but even if his ideas for supporting the middle class made any sense, I am, shall we say, disappointed that his supporters think it is acceptable for him to publicly and nastily bash other legitimate parts of government, the free press, and in particular America’s allies. It is a sad, sad, eye-opener. The silver lining is that complacency is now a thing of the past. We will have to have faith in the people, all the people.
I tend to think of moral authority as something only people can provide. Companies and countries are generally amoral but often try to project an image of morality where none really exists. Look at all the corrupt puppet governments the USA supported over the years. Countries can garner respect from people by their laws , constitution or track record but I think the USA lost this a few years back if they ever really had it. I think their guiding principle is that you don’t have to be moral, you just have to appear to be better than other countries and hide the truth. It sort of like the old attitude that you are innocent until you get caught. Today the attitude is that you are innocent until the majority stops believing your lies.
Thanks for this, Laurie. Needless to say, I agree with everything you say. I was trying to take the high road in accepting that there may have been a case for the assumption that the U.S. has had some level of moral authority, going hand in hand with having the world’s most powerful military and the world’s biggest economy. It’s a reach, but at least there was that ideal. I do think that it is better to be reaching for an ideal of being helpful to others outside your own borders, even if the reality is sometimes a bit shady and almost invariably with a large dose of self-interest. I think we’d all fall into the self-interest part. I’d certainly rather think of the U.S. as not only being capable of doing good for its own citizens and for others in the world, but also of aiming to do just that. Being off the mark and having to reset from time to time is much different from what the rest of the world is watching now – not to mention all Americans. It now has a leader who proudly proclaims to have no interest in helping – or even being civil – to anyone outside its borders, and only interested in helping anyone within his borders who votes for him (and then the help is pretty questionable in most instances) or who has lots of wealth to protect. There is not a note of morality in any of Trump’s words or actions. No ideals. No empathy. No kindness.