Butterfly Effect: “Law and Order” at Home, “Let it Burn” Abroad - OZY | A Modern Media Company
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Look beyond America's borders, and Trump’s message heading into November is the exact opposite of what he's peddling domestically.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

America, President Donald Trump insists, is on a cliff edge where it must choose between “law and order” or anarchy. The U.S., he argues, will descend into chaos if Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden wins. Trump’s reelection campaign is messaging that only he can ensure the rule of law. We’ll know in November whether that message resonates enough with American voters to give him four more years in the White House.

But one fundamental contradiction is already becoming crystal clear. If we look beyond America’s borders, Trump’s message is exactly the opposite of the one he is peddling domestically. Trump’s disdain for the United Nations and other global bodies is no secret, and he has pulled America out of multiple global pacts — from the Iran deal to the Paris climate change agreement.

Yet, as we head toward November, we’re witnessing a new urgency in Trump’s approach toward bodies that uphold international law and governance. Trump is no longer satisfied with pulling the U.S. out of global agencies — he, it appears, wants to proactively and permanently kill them. That makes the coming election one that will determine the future of the world order like no other.

Last week, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on top officials of the International Criminal Court (ICC), including chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, a widely respected Gambian lawyer and administrator. Their offense? The United Nations-backed ICC is probing alleged war crimes by U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. The U.S. — like Russia, China and India — is not a signatory to the court, so any verdict is not binding on America in any case. But that’s not enough at a time when Trump has made clear that he is ready to use global bodies as punching bags to bolster his domestic standing.

Punishing the court’s officials helps the president demonstrate his support for the American military — never mind a recent article in The Atlantic that claimed he had called the country’s war dead “losers” and “suckers,” epithets Trump insists he never used. And late last year, Trump pardoned three controversial soldiers charged with war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. The message is clear: Not only does the U.S. not care about law and order outside its borders, but it’s also ready to punish and undercut bodies like the ICC that try to uphold global rules. It’s “law and order” at home but “let it burn” outside. 

Criticized for his handling of the pandemic, Trump has repeatedly blamed the World Health Organization for a bias toward China. In July, his administration began the formal process of pulling the U.S. out of the WHO. If Trump wins, the U.S. will end its relationship with the WHO by July 2021. Without American funding, it’s unlikely that the global body that’s spearheading efforts to get vaccines to the poorest nations will survive. The U.S. contributed $450 million — about 15 percent of the agency’s budget — to the WHO’s coffers last year. This year, it had handed over only $34 million by the start of June.

The United Nations will meet for a virtual General Assembly later this month in the shadow of a looming funding crisis. The Trump administration has proposed cutting U.S. funding by 29 percent for U.N. peacekeeping operations, and by 34 percent for the global body’s general budget and other agencies, if it returns to power. In 2018, the U.S. contributed a total of $10 billion to the U.N. and its agencies.

To be sure, Trump isn’t the first U.S. president to use global bodies as he pleases. Like major powers through history — including the Soviet Union and China more recently — the U.S. has repeatedly bent or violated international law to suit its will. It has used the U.N. to punish and impose sanctions on enemies such as North Korea, Russia and Iran, while flagrantly violating its laws in unilaterally invading nations like Iraq in 2003.

Still, all previous presidents since World War II have abstained from any act that threatens the very existence of global law enforcement bodies. In the final months of that war, ailing President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote to his war secretary, Harry Woodring, in March 1945: “The tragic sequence of events through the last twenty-five years should be enough to convince all peace-loving Americans that the only alternative to another war is wholehearted membership in a plan to maintain the peace agreed to by our friends and allies.” For seven decades after that, bodies like the U.N. and Bretton Woods institutions like the World Trade Organization helped the U.S. dominate global rule-making, while sharing the burden of enforcing those laws with others.

The biggest victims of Trump’s aggressive dismantling of global organizations are America’s allies and friends like Europe, Japan and India, which depend on international law to push back against growing Chinese and Russian unilateralism, from the South China Sea to Ukraine. But ultimately, it will hurt America too, as FDR recognized, leaving it lonely and entirely dependent on brute economic and military strength to enforce its writ on the world.

The next time China aggressively grabs islands in the South China Sea or an authoritarian regime kills its civilians using chemical weapons in violation of global laws, Trump might want to look in the mirror instead of at Twitter. He’ll see the saboteur allowing chaos and anarchy to reign globally.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

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