Separating Families Was a Blunder on a Global Scale

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- President Donald Trump’s executive order ending the forced separation of families crossing the southern border illegally has quieted, if only temporarily, a ferocious domestic controversy.

Yet the episode should nonetheless serve as a reminder that America’s domestic policies often have global impact.

How the U.S. conducts itself at home has profound implications for American prestige, soft power and influence on the world stage. This is a point U.S. policymakers grasped during the Cold War competition with the Soviet Union, and one they need to re-learn as a new contest for global influence with China heats up.

Make no mistake: Trump’s policy of separating children from their parents caused intense international blowback, even during the relatively short period it was in effect.

The newspaper coverage in the U.K., Australia and Canada — three of America’s closest and oldest allies — has been blistering. The official commentary was also almost uniformly negative: British Prime Minister Theresa May, who had previously tried to forge a warm personal relationship with Trump, labeled family separation “wrong”; Canada’s Justin Trudeau called it “unacceptable.” Likewise, the Mexican government condemned the policy as “cruel and inhuman”; Pope Francis, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon and other leaders voiced similar opinions.

The family separation saga thus joins a series of incidents — including also efforts to ban immigration and refugees from several Muslim-majority countries in early 2017, and the president’s seeming sympathy for white-nationalist agitators in Charlottesville, Virginia, later that year — in which the Trump administration’s rhetoric and policies have stirred international outrage and diminished America’s moral standing.

Yet if Trump has pursued what often seems to be a record number of such foolish episodes, the connection between America’s domestic conduct and the level of moral influence it wields abroad is nothing new.

The U.S. has long styled itself, with considerable justification, as a nation that can appeal to the hopes and aspirations of people everywhere — by dint of having a broadly representative, democratic form of government that protects human rights and champions the dignity and aspirations of the individual.

The U.S. holds itself to a high standard, in other words, and when it is seen to fall short of that standard, it pays a substantial price in the court of world opinion.

During the Cold War, for instance, American policymakers came to understand that the superpower contest was not simply a clash for geopolitical influence; it was equally an ideological competition over which system – American democratic capitalism or Soviet communism -- could better meet the demands of its own people and better inspire the loyalties of communities around the world.

In the 1950s and 1960s, segregation and racial violence were thus not only domestic challenges for the U.S. They were also moral failures that threatened to undermine the country’s claim to stand for freedom and justice.

This was one of the chief reasons the federal government increasingly threw its weight behind efforts to break down segregation and advance racial equality. As Dwight Eisenhower’s Justice Department argued in a friend of the court brief filed in the case of Brown v. Board of Education: “The existence of discrimination against minority groups in the United States has an adverse effect upon our relations with other countries. Racial discrimination furnishes grist for the Communist propaganda mills, and it raises doubts even among friendly nations as to the intensity of our devotion to the democratic faith.”

When the Supreme Court ruled that school segregation was unconstitutional, the widely read newspaper columnist Roscoe Drummond opined that the decision was so important because “it comes at a moment when our leadership of the free peoples demands the best ... of what America is and can be.” America’s global leadership required that the nation honor its democratic ideals in the day-to-day conduct of its domestic affairs.

After the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed, the U.S. enjoyed a respite from both geopolitical and ideological competition. Yet today, as I argued in a recent series of columns, Washington is again facing an intensifying contest for global influence, this time against a rising, ambitious China.

This contest, too, has an important ideological and soft-power dimension, in the sense that Beijing is making the argument that its blend of state capitalism and iron-handed authoritarian governance can deliver better results than America’s democratic model.

The competition with China, the Trump administration’s own National Security Strategy notes, is fundamentally a contest “between those who value human dignity and freedom and those who oppress individuals and enforce uniformity.” And although Americans may find it hard to believe that this is much of a rivalry, China has been rapidly narrowing the soft-power gap.

In 2017, the Pew Research Center conducted polling on how populations in 25 countries viewed China and the U.S. The results were alarming. America’s lead over China in global favorability ratings fell from 12 points during the 2014-2016 period to just two points in 2017. The number of countries in which America was viewed more favorably than China dropped from 25 to 12.

To be sure, Chinese global prestige is much broader than it is deep, because it seems to reflect admiration for China’s impressive economic performance — something that is unlikely forever to endure — rather than a more fundamental desire to emulate Beijing’s repressive political model. Nonetheless, the polling clearly indicates that we no longer live in a world in which U.S. soft power is unrivaled.

Which brings us back to the original point: The imperative of handling America’s domestic affairs in ways that inspire international admiration rather than condemnation.

The soft-power competition with China in the coming decades will hinge greatly on things the U.S. can’t control, such as Beijing’s future economic growth rate. Yet it will hinge equally on things U.S. leaders can control, such as America’s ability to burnish its reputation as a country that champions individual rights and liberties and represents the deepest desires for freedom and dignity of people in every region of the world.

The U.S. once took a geopolitical twilight struggle with Moscow as a challenge to live up to its most fundamental moral principles. It should do the same thing — and avoid the sort of self-inflicted wounds that Trump has repeatedly inflicted — if it hopes to win another protracted global contest today.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.