Is the US still the moral police of today’s world?

This week’s inaugural visit of US President Donald Trump on the world stage will baffle those who have looked to the America to provide moral clarity. Over the years, people have looked at the US and sometimes wondered at what looked like a contradiction. Consequently, in a world mired in moral quagmire, it helps to have a few loud voices who seem to know what they are doing.

Over the years those few voices have provided inspiration and drive to forces of moderation and social and moral progress elsewhere in the world. In Africa, for example, long saddled by leaders insensitive to people’s needs, steeped in corrupt ways and not looking beyond their families’ interests; progressive forces have looked to the US for a voice of reason and moral muscle to nudge their leaders to paths of reform.

That does not mean being blind to the fate that may have fallen many other leaders, reform oriented, but who had been perceived to stand in the ways of the US and the West. South American countries such as Chile and some African nations, for example, Congo before the rise of the late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, provide examples of the sometimes dark hand of the West.

New epoch

When Nelson Mandela came out of prison after 27 years, the South African freedom icon chose to visit Cuba amid protests from some western capitals. But Mandela was categorical that his movement would remain faithful to countries and organisations that had supported their struggle. It was a comment made at a time when the ink in Washington listing Mandela as a terrorist had not been wiped off.

In spite of sometimes lack of moral clarity and appearance of inconsistency or even hypocrisy, the US has led the world in laying that values that most of the civilised world share. Those values included freedom, democracy, the rule of law and human rights among others. They have been so core to what America did that in most cases, development support from the US had been tied to observance and adherence to these values.

But the rise of Donald Trump seems to usher the US and probably the world to a new epoch where the old rules may not apply. It started with his unusual campaign. In the past, a candidate for the position of the US President attracted so much scrutiny and had such a high bar of moral clarity to meet. However, this did not seem to apply to the candidate of the Republican Party.

Instead, it became a platform on which the candidate said whatever he pleased and his audience lapped it up. He changed his positions like one changes a shirt and his fans called it pragmatism. This did not stop when he got into office and the new president has baffled friend and foe. May be until this week when the Teflon president seems to start losing some of his magic with the firing of the then director of FBI, James Comey.

It was while his house in the US seemed to be turning upside down that Donald Trump took off for Saudi Arabia, on a trip that would take him to seven countries including Israel, Italy, and Belgium.

Riyadh had a difficult relationship with the former president, Barack Obama and so, for the kingdom rulers of the oil-rich country, Trump provided a turning of the page. And he seems not to have disappointed.

The little details of democracy, moral values in consonance with those promoted in the US and the Western world did not matter. What mattered is what Trump has called a philosophy of pragmatism. In one single trip, Riyadh and Washington signed a deal worth hundreds of billions of dollars for the supply of defence material to the oil-rich kingdom.

Washington did not ask any questions. Riyadh has little to show for respect of human rights, for the rule of law or even democracy. In the neighbouring Iran, for which Trump has only harsh words, elections that are held on a regular basis were returning to office a moderate president who had been opposed by a conservative. But it did not seem to matter.

Trump spoke of support of the American economy and creation of jobs. Pragmatism is triumphing. But what exactly is this pragmatism? Would it mean that across the globe America was turning to a new philosophy?

May be not. In the countries of the South with whom the US deals, often there has not been too much at stake thus allowing it to pontificate. But when it came to what really mattered to American interest then Washington looked at it. America First has been the silent slogan for the US for a long time, only that it was never voiced the way Trump does.

From an international relations point of view, there may be nothing new in Trump. What may be new is the rhetoric that spells in rather black and white what Washington has always practiced but silently. It may very well be that for some countries, Washington will still raise the human rights card. If so, then broadly, it is business as usual in the new world of Donald Trump.

- The writer is the Dean of the School of Communication Language and Performing Arts at Daystar University