Bowing to petty tyrants.

I just got back from a trip to my hometown, Buenos Aires. During the time that I was there, the center-right president, Mauricio Macri, made a state visit to the White House. Like Donald Trump, Macri is the son of a millionaire who continued the family business and branched out into sports, entertainment and then politics. Unlike Trump, Macri was a two-time mayor of Buenos Aires who was widely recognized as having cleaned up the city and instituted a number of important public works and modernisation projects. He is not universally popular but he is generally acknowledged as competent. Oh, and he is reported to have business ties with the Trump Organization.

I write this in order to provide background to Macri’s visit to the White House. Not so much because of what was said during his meetings with Donald Trump but because of what did not happen. It turns out that in March the Argentine official government gazette, the Boletin Oficial, published an announcement that after the state visit President Macri would be awarding Argentina’s highest honor to a foreigner, the Order of San Martin, to Jimmy Carter for his focus on human rights in general and the efforts he led–channeled through his Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, the late Patricia Derrian–to uncover the fate of the “disappeared” under the Argentine military bureaucratic dictatorship of 1976-82.

I was involved in human rights work in the late 70s and early 80s in Argentina and can personally attest to the fact that Carter and Derrian saved hundreds if not thousands of Argentine lives simply by asking the junta about the whereabouts of political prisoners. Carter was also the first US president who made the provision of foreign aid, both military and economic, contingent on a country’s human rights certification by the State Department (where the State Department investigates and evaluates a country’s human rights record before recommending for or against channelling aid to it). Although Republican presidents have tried to weaken the human rights certification provisions in US aid programs, Democratic presidents have largely adhered to the parameters first enunciated by the Carter administration.

Before Macri traveled to Washington, the Trump administration asked the Argentine government to cancel the award ceremony for Carter. This, in spite of the fact that the ceremony was not part of Macri’s state visit and was to be done outside of the official schedule of events. So, to repeat, let’s get this straight: at the insistence of the Trump administration, the US government formally asked the head of a sovereign state to not award a former US president a rare honor for that president’s championing of human rights world-wide and his specific role in opposing the murderous actions carried out by the Argentine military and its accomplices during the infamous “dirty war” of the 1970s and early 1980s.

That is reprehensible. It is not only an insult to President Carter but to the Argentine government, the Argentine people and the history that they commonly share. Sadly, against the advice of his Foreign Ministry, President Macri bowed to the US request and cancelled the award ceremony.

Speculation about why he did so ranges from not wanting to get off-side with the White House, diplomatic necessity and/or Macri not wanting to jeopardize any future business ties with the Trump Organization. Whatever the reasons, Macri has justifiably been condemned for acquiescing to the request. His best option now is to invite Jimmy Cater to Argentina in order to receive the award, something that in retrospect is probably the more rightful place where to do so.

But why would Trump and his minions make such an outrageous demand? Is it because Trump hates Democrats or Jimmy Carter specifically? Perhaps. Could it be that he has no regard for supporting human rights as a matter of principle or practice? Possibly. Or is it because the Trump administration is currently in the process of cozying up to tyrants such as Dutarte, Erdogan and Putin as well as a number of lesser despots and has even spoken of being “honoured” to meet with that “smart cookie,” Kim Jun-un? If so, could it be that Trump did not want a reminder of when the US actually acted as a moral champion interfering with his value-free power politics approach to international relations? Again, whatever the reasons–and most of them reduce at best to needing any and all partners in the fight against common enemies and threats, even though the commonality of those enemies and threats is in dispute–Trump has shown himself to be a bullying coward lacking in any decency, while Macri has been revealed to be a quisling in the face of the bully’s demands.

There is a lesson here for NZ. Trump will interfere with sovereign decisions of other states under the implicit threat of retaliation. He has no moral compass and no ethical compulsion to respect another country’s decision to uphold international standards (such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) should he find it inconvenient to do so. Given that NZ still clings to the fiction that it maintains an “independent and autonomous” foreign policy, it likely will not be long before that claim is put to the test by the sociopath in the Oval Office. And with the defense agreements signed between the US and NZ over the last eight years, it will likely be NZ support for Trump-instigated conflicts where that test will be.

The National government has two choices in that event: like Macri, forsake national interest and bow to the bully; or prepare contingency plans for the repercussions of saying “no.” The question is whether National has the spine to even consider the second option.

8 thoughts on “Bowing to petty tyrants.

  1. The answer is ” No, the National Government does not have the spine or the ability to plan for any matter of import.” The evidence is all around you, especially in Auckland.

  2. I agree with philj, at least up to the “No”. Auckland’s travails are a matter of National pandering to its core city voting base, rather than lack of intestinal fortitude, in my opinion.

    But are the State Department guidelines for providing aid to countries public? While I suspect they are more honoured in breach, including by Democrat presidents, it would be interesting to examine their benchmarks.

  3. Luc:

    The State Department has a official set of guidelines about its human rights certification process. Its HR reports act as a type of sliding scale in that aid provision is conditioned on the degree to which foreign governments adhere to the UDHR and other measures such as press freedom and the like. Carter set the original standard and used it to cut off all aid the Argentine and Chilean juntas (among others) in the late 1970s. Republicans ever since have tried to water the standard down and have ignored it when possible. Even Democratic administrations have been less than rigorous about conditioning aid on human rights in strategically important countries, but overall their record is better than that of the GOP administrations.

    For example, when I was working at the Pentagon one of my roles was to assist in negotiations with LATAM governments seeking weapons and other forms of military assistance. In cases like Chile in 93-94, we had to tell the Chilean military that we could not sell or gift them what they wanted because their track record on human rights during the dictatorship and afterwards showed no effort to investigate crimes committed against civilians or even admission that such crimes occurred. Under those circumstances we could not go to Congress and request authorisation of any sale/loan/gift of military hardware to them. They were not happy and it was not until the late 1990s (after three successful post-authoritarian elections and the opening of criminal investigations and court cases against junta members and others complicit in crimes) that anything was sold to them.

    The important thing is that since Carter the State Department has to provide the HR certification (aka country report) before Congress will authorize aid to foreign countries. The requirement extends to other US government agencies, like DoD and AID. That means that HR certification has, for lack of a better phrase, been “tacked to the wall” as a referent in US foreign policy. Even if and when honoured in the breach, it forces US administrations to frame their aid requests through the prism of HR certification, among other things.

    You can see the latest country HR reports here:

  4. The real damage is not to Jimmy Carter, Argentina or for that matter we here in Aotearoa, but to the United States of America, which has long struggled under the moral burden imposed by racial bigotry at home and cowardly bullying abroad.

  5. Trump sees everything as zero-sum, it is one of the few consistent qualities he has. Therefore because he supports “strong-men” that means he must oppose human rights.

    Like just about everything Trump does it doesn’t hold up to even the weakest scrutiny.

  6. Geoff:

    Your characterisation is way too simplistic. The US has long struggled with and never fully overcome its inner demons or its penchant to meddle in the affairs of other states, but it has a strong idealist streak (to say nothing of isolationist tendencies) that has often compelled it to at least try and act as a force for good at home and abroad. There are numerous examples of US behaviour that are not reducible to overcoming moral burdens, but instead are born of other logics and concerns that, if often unrealistic in specific contexts (say, democracy promotion in the Middle East), nevertheless speak to its belief in the perfectibility of humankind. Alas, as James has noted, those better angels have been abandoned by the current crowd so unfit to serve in the West Wing.

  7. A couple of days back I watched a documentary on the Civil Rights Movement in the US. Some pretty dark stuff there: murders, lynchings, bombings and mass imprisonment, but also great heroism, sacrifice and humanitarianism from black and white civil rights campaigners, men and women, young and old, ordinary folk and civic leaders and in the end, the Federal government. I don’t think I am being simplistic. I can see both sides of the picture. But people in general are strongly influenced by present trends, and if they see the US stepping away from its humanitarian ideals, that will colour their impression of the nation as a whole.

  8. Pablo.

    1) I hope for Macri’s sake the Argentine government finds a work around solution to award Carter its highest honor anyway.
    The US administration may enforce retaliation… but hey…when US AID actually turns out to be in the form of repayable loans is it really aid??

    2) Macri risks what I call status quo paralysis. Managing the economy adequately to ensure the elites maintain control.

    3) The NZ government already has this paralysis.
    English talking TTP with Japan when the the real deal in the coming years will be China – Russia one belt one road
    ( OBOR ) My point: The NZ government no idea / no vision

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