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Why It Just Makes Sense for the U.S. to Withdraw from the UNHRC

It just makes sense. Having withdrawn from the Paris Accord, and the Iran deal; having broken with the world to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital; having provoked allies and rivals with trade war-triggering tariffs and personal insults; having shocked the world with talk of a Great Wall to keep out Mexicans (paid for by Mexico), and the Muslim travel bans; having subjected the world to the spectacle of immigrant children ripped from their mothers’ arms and placed in detention centers; having provoked the European Council president Donald Tusk to ask, “With friends like this, who needs enemies?”–well, it just makes sense that Trump would withdraw the U.S. from the UN Human Rights Council.

The stated cause? Because the UN Human Rights Council is allegedly biased against Israel. Its 47 members elected to staggered three-year terms have allegedly spent a disproportionate amount of time investigating Israeli abuses of Palestinian and Lebanese human rights. This angers Israel, and hence the U.S. Congress and—to the extent it’s aware of this council’s existence—Trump’s Christian Zionist support base.

U.S. politicians have long accused UNHRC of anti-Israel bias. But the U.S. relationship to the body is actually complicated. In 2015, the Saudi ambassador to the UN in Geneva was elected Chair of the UNHRC Advisory Committee, occasioning protests that a country with such a horrifying human rights record could hold such a post. But the U.S. UN ambassador Samantha Power supported the decision. It would have been awkward not to, given the tight Riyadh-Washington connection.

The current U.S. UN ambassador Nikki Haley had hinted darkly, without naming any names, that because the council includes members guilty of egregious human rights violations the U.S. might pull out. But this was after Trump’s sword dance with the Saudi princes in May 2017. What sense does it make to first facilitate Saudi participation in the council (in order to enhance the kingdom’s reputation while it pursued a discrete anti-Iran alignment with Israel), then pull out of the council due to its alleged anti-Israel bias?

The decision to withdraw from the council makes sense in its nonsense. It is another gesture to Netanyahu, another statement to the world that the U.S. will stand with Israel against its critics. It’s a statement that Trump’s foreign policy is to follow through on bombastic campaign promises, to maintain his 40% support base. To do this, he must alienate Europe. He also alienates Russia, China, Japan, Canada, Mexico—practically everyone—but in particular he alienates European allies with Germany at their head.

The European Union and other European organizations like the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe emphasize “human rights” as they are not emphasized everywhere on the planet. (One must again mention key U.S. ally Saudi Arabia.) As the U.S. so conspicuously dissociates itself from a commitment to human rights, their affirmation might become an increasingly centrral point of European identity. Europe enjoys the moral high ground now, fighting climate change, opposing the sabotage of Middle East peace, resisting unfair U.S. tariffs, criticizing Trump’s racist policies. It makes sense that Trump, given what we know of his psychology, would want to further provoke European allies (after smugly rating the relationship between the U.S. as the other G7 states as “a 10,” the way he would rate a Miss Universe pageant candidate) just to show what a maverick he is, what a bully he can be.

What Trump’s telling the world is: We in the U.S. don’t believe climate change is that big an issue. We don’t think we need to adhere to rigorously meticulously negotiated international agreements. We don’t think we need to moderate our unqualified support for Israel to preserve our relations with Europeans and others. We don’t think we need to maintain even a modicum of courtesy in holding discussions with close allies. While accusing all of you of treating the U.S. unfairly, due to stupid trade agreements, we insist on our right to provoke trade wars. And human rights? We’re all for them except when you demand that Israel observe them.

Makes sense, right?

Just like it makes sense for the U.S. to “dominate space” though the formation of a Space Force, separate from but equal to the Air Force. Imagine how Xi, Putin, Abe, May, Merkel, and Macron greeted Trump’s announcement. The U.S. is militarizing its domestic police force and border control, expanding its military operations around the world and threatening Iran. Of course it wants to develop its space capacity. What would make America greater again than nuking the world from space?

Trump’s withdrawal of the U.S. from the UNHRC is another in a pattern of provocations that seem positively designed to alienate key U.S. allies. In this case, rather than re-consulting Lenin for insight about imperialism as moribund capitalism, one wants to revisit Freud’s concept of Todestrieb (“death drive”) for understanding.

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Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu

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