Challenges of ‘America First’ in Global Politics: The Case of Democratic Corruption and ICC Visa Denial

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Trump

The United States has been a leader of leaders in the conduct and management of international questions, especially since the end of World War II in 1945 and the Cold War in 1989. The United States, as a great nation, and particularly the extent of such greatness, has, at best, remained another controversy of its known. However, the fragility of the many international issues with which the United States has had to contend with, are such that the various leaders of the United States have to tread cautiously, as well as making haste slowly in their foreign policy reactions, but this is not the case with Donald Trump.

When Mr. Donald Trump was elected US president in 2016, he mistook the caution of his predecessors for weakness and not only wrongly believed that the United States was on the path of decline, but also that there was the need to stop the movement of US along the path of decline. Was and is the United States really on the path of decline? If yes, in which aspect of national life is such a decline? Will it be right to talk about a general decline?

We do not believe that the United States is on the path of decline. What is obvious is that many are the nations that have attained the feats of the United States. China is a typical example. In fact, China is increasingly showing both capacity and capability to assume the position of an alternative leader of the world. Both the United States and the European Union are much concerned about the rise in status of China, especially in light of its large and increasing following of African States. And true enough, some European Union Member States have also subscribed to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Whatever is the case, it can be deductively and rightly posited that Donald Trump believes that the United States has a declining status. What is not clear with his conception of ‘America First’ is the domain of its application: is it at the domestic or at the external level? By declaring the making of ‘America First’ the first and most important pillar of his foreign policy, what should we mean, and what does Donald Trump understand as ‘America First’ as a policy?

These questions are necessary because Donald Trump simply borrowed the expression from others because he likes it. He likes it but without necessarily understanding it, not to mention understanding its attendant implications. Based on historical record, it was the America First Committee, comprising about 800,000 members and grouped into 450 chapters in the United States, that first came up with the expression during World War II. By then, ‘America First’ only meant American nationalism and unilateralism of action. Additionally, all the proponents of ‘America First’ were anti-Semitic and pro-fascist in focus. Perhaps more interestingly, the long term objective of the proponents of ‘America First’ was to prevent the United States from entering into World War II on the side of the Allies. In spite of the original meanings of ‘America First,’ as given by the America First Committee, the expression has been freely used by politicians, and particularly presidential candidates.

For instance, President elect, Jimmy Carter, used the expression in his victory speech at his campaign headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, on the morning following election night in 1976. In 1980, Ronald Reagan’s campaign slogan was ‘Let’s Make America Great Again.’ As coined, the slogan was more of a plea unto others to kindly join in ‘Making America Great Again.’ It is quite different from ‘Make America Great Again,’ which has an imperative and authoritative character. It is more of a directive, and therefore dictatorial. In fact, Ronald Reagan used the expression as a call on all Americans in reaction to the deepening stagflation that characterised US economy by then. It was a call for understanding of the situation and patriotism.

Bill Clinton was also on record to have used the expression in 1992 during his presidential campaigns, as well as in a radio commercial aired in support of his wife in 2008. He again referred to it in 2016 but not as a campaign slogan but to provide another interpretation of it on the basis of disagreement with Donald Trump’s understanding of it. As he put it, ‘Trump’s version, used as a campaign rallying cry, was a message to white southerners that Trump was promising to “give you an economy you had fifty years ago and … move you back up on the social totem pole and other people down.’ In this interpretation, superiority or discrimination, or better-than-thou disposition is insinuated. It implies seeking progress for oneself while pushing setbacks for others. Bill Clinton was simply suggesting that Donald Trump was coming to be a source of development setbacks.

Consequently, when Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, he was challenged with criticisms ranging from what the America First Committee represented in the 1940s, especially in terms of isolationism and anti-Semitism. Donald Trump had to quickly defend himself as a non-isolationist and made ‘America First’ as his foreign policy doctrine. He lays great emphasis on it in light of the fact that, in a politico/Morning Consult poll released on January 25, 2017, 65% of Americans polled supported Donald Trump’s ‘America First.’

It is therefore not surprising that the 2018 budget proposal of Donald Trump mentioned ‘America First’ and ‘Make America Great Again’ in it. Like ‘America First,’ ‘Making America Great Again’ (MAGA) is not new a concept. It has been used variously by different professionals. But this is not the problem. The issue is the greatness of the United States that is presented to the public as having been lost and that has to be regained.
Before the election of Donald Trump, the greatness of the United States was never in doubt and United States had not always been the first in many spheres of life. For example, the Wikipedia.org has simply summarised the industrial feats of the United States thus: ‘one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world.’ In this regard, it says ‘the United States has been the birthplace of 161 of Britannica’s 321 Greatest inventions, including items such as the airplane, internet, microchip, laser, cellphone, refrigerator, e-mail, microwave, personal computer, liquid-crystal display, and light-emitting diode technology, air conditioning, assembly line, supermarkets, bar code, automated teller machine, etc.’

With these inventions, the United States cannot but have a record of greatness. The greatness should not be understood in the context of the inventions per se, but particularly in terms of US technological capacity and capability. When greatness is defined by capacity and capability, there is no way such greatness will not remain permanent. In other words, we cannot talk about ‘less great,’ or ‘loss of greatness.’ Having technological capacity and capability is another way of saying institutional possession of technological know-how. Consequently, talking about ‘Making America Great Again’ is a misnomer. America was great. It is great, and it can still be made greater, if not the greatest. However, an acquired status of greatness cannot be reversible. It is a fait accompli but this should be clearly differentiated from the policy of ‘America First.’

The notion of ‘America First’ can be ambiguous. It can first be interpreted to mean giving priority to domestic questions before foreign policy interests. It can also imply that, in the conduct and management of foreign policy, priority should first be given to US interests. In fact, since foreign policy itself is regarded as an extension of domestic policy, and in which case, the external environment can also be taken advantage of to foster national interests at the domestic level, the distinction between internal and external policy may therefore not be a big deal. Thus, the best interpretation that can be given to the policy of ‘America First’ is absolute defence of, or insistence on, US interest at home and abroad without compromise. This applies to both foreign policy as an operational tactic and as a strategic objective. It is within the context of this interpretation that Vie Internationale explicates the current challenges to the US policy of ‘America First’ in international politics, with particular emphasis on increasing corruption of democracy in America and the conflict between the democratic preaching of what it does at home and abroad. In this regard, the withdrawal of visa already granted to people is hereunder given for purposes of illustration.

Democratic Corruption
Democratic corruption is about democratisation of corruption and corrupting democracy and its values. Corruption, in whichever way it is defined, is outlawed in international law and relations. However, many people disregard the law and feel free to engage in sharp practices. The United States is a terra cognita of democracy worldwide. Consequently, it can never speak well if it is in the same United States that democratic values are now bastardised, and for that matter, by Americans, their government, and its agents.

The largest college admission cheating scheme ever prosecuted in the United States reportedly took place last Monday, April 8, 2019 in Boston. Mr. Rick Singer who administers a college prep business, assisted several wealthy parents to cheat ‘on standardised tests for their children. He bribed college coaches to falsely designate the children as recruited athletes, smoothing their path to admission. The scheme helped the students get into highly selective universities like Yale, Stanford University of Southern California and UCLA.’

Amongst those parents for whom cheating assistance was given is Felicity Huffman, the star of “Desperate Housewives.” She recognised her fault and pleaded guilty in the court. In her words, “I am in full acceptance of my guilt, and with deep regret and shame over what I have done, I accept full responsibility for my actions and will accept the consequences that stem from those actions.’

More important, she added: ‘I am ashamed of the pain I have caused my daughter, my family, my friends, my colleagues and the educational community. I want to apologise to the students who work hard every day to get into college, and to their parents who made tremendous sacrifices to support their children and do so honestly.’
And most importantly, Madam Huffman admitted that her ‘daughter knew absolutely nothing about (her) actions and in (her) misguided and profound wrong way (she has) betrayed her. This transgression toward her and the public (she) will carry for the rest of (her) life. And most interestingly but disturbingly too, she said her desire to help her daughter ‘is no excuse to break the law or engage in dishonesty.’

Her statement is quite touching and thought provoking. There is no disputing the fact that she regretted her wrong doing, especially for admitting that seeking help either for her daughter or anyone else does not mean doing so contrary to law. She might have been advised to be remorseful, bearing in mind the stiff punishment for the offence. For instance, Eric Levenson of the CNN who reported the case, has it that, ‘in exchange for Huffman’s plea, Federal prosecutors will recommend incarceration on April 8 at the “low end” of the sentencing range, a $20,000 fine and 12 months of supervised release. They will not bring further charges.’
Our concern is not much about the remorsefulness, and even more less about the sanctions, We are more concerned about the operational modality of how corruption is executed in a highly developed country like the United States.

This is the way Levenson interestingly put it: ‘Huffman and Singer exchanged multiple e-mails about how to get extra time on her daughters…They then arranged for Huffman’s daughter to take the SAT at a location controlled by an administrator who had been bribed by Singer… Riddell, the brains of the operation, then flew from Tampa to California to cheat on the test for Huffman’s daughter. Huffman’s daughter received a score of 1420 out of a maximum of 1600 on the SAT, a score about 400 points over the Preliminary SAT exam a year earlier. Huffman later discussed the scheme in a recorded phone call.’

The foregoing clearly shows that acts of corruption take place in an air of freedom, well oxygenated and conducive environment. It shows how people put in public and private positions easily take advantage of public trust, abuse it in a reckless manner, and then escape to safety until they are caught. More regretfully, it shows the involvement of leading tertiary institutions in the United States. Many of the universities implicated in the corruption saga, such as Georgetown University, have indicated their preparedness to review their admission policy while some of the universities, like The Yale and Stanford, have expelled the students that have been discrepantly considered for admission. Before evaluating the implications of this category of corruption, let us quickly espy the other side as provided by the use of visa denial policy.

ICC Visa Denial
The grant and refusal of visa to any applicant is an expression of national sovereignty and therefore a privilege, not a right, to the recipient applicant. It is generally granted or refused to the exclusion of any other sovereign State unless such granting or refusal is collectively provided for in either a bilateral or multilateral framework, as it is in the case of the Schengen visa.

When visa is issued, it is only a recommendation of the holder to the border authorities. The recommendation can be accepted or rejected if it is found that there is a conflict between the information given as at the time of visa application and the time of its presentation at the entry point in the visa-issuing State. Even when there is no conflict in information, political reasons can always be given to deny entry into a country. In fact, visa denial has become a potent force in defending the national interests of the United States at various levels. It is sufficient for the United States not to like one’s face for a decision not to allow access of an individual into the United States.

This was the case in September 2018 when the Donald Trump administration first threatened to ban the International Criminal Court (ICC) judges and prosecutors from entering the United States, as well as attach their funds domiciled in the United States, if the ICC opted to launch criminal charges against US soldiers for their crimes allegedly committed in Afghanistan. Without doubt, the ICC received not less than 1.17 million complaints within the first three months it began to collect statements and materials. Somini Sengupta and Marlise Simons have quoted on November 14, 2016 an ICC prosecutor as suggesting that ‘US forces may have committed war crimes in Afghanistan’ (videwww.independent.co.uk). Again, on Saturday, 17 February 2018, the same London Independent newspaper wrote that ‘Afghans submit 1.17 million war crimes claims to International Court.’

And more recently, on Friday, March 15, 2019 the Los Angeles Times again reported that the Trump administration would revoke or deny US visas for ICC judges and prosecutors and others seeking to investigate or prosecute US and Israeli soldiers for potential war crimes. As Secretary of State, Michael R. Pompeo, reportedly put it, the investigating ICC officials ‘should not assume that you still have or will get a visa or will be permitted to enter the US.’

But more significantly, Mr. Pompeo declared: ‘I am announcing a policy of US restrictions on those individuals directly responsible for any ICC investigation of US personnel. These visa restrictions may also be used to deter ICC efforts to pursue allied personnel, including Israelis without allies’ consent.’ Additionally, Pompeo pontificated: ‘these visa restrictions will not be the end of our efforts. We are prepared to take additional steps including economic sanctions, if the ICC does not change its course.’

And true enough, the ICC appeared to have refused to change its course. Consequently, on Friday, 5 April, 2019, the Trump administration revoked the visa of Fatou Bensouda, the Chief Prosecutor of the ICC, in reaction to her inquiry into possible war crimes committed by US forces in Afghanistan. Madam Bensouda reacted that she ‘has an independent and impartial mandate under the Rome Statute. Therefore, she further noted that ‘the Prosecutor and her Office will continue to undertake that statutory duty with utmost commitment and professionalism without fear or favour.’

This position is quite interesting. Pompeo’s policy stand that ‘the US will take necessary steps to protect its sovereignty and to protect our people from unjust investigation and prosecution by the ICC’ (vide Aris Folley’s report in The Hill, April 6, 2019) is equally noteworthy. Perhaps what is more interesting is how to interpret the implications of the US policy statements in light of the various critical issues involved.

First, the United States has the exclusive right to revoke any visa that had been issued. But depending on the status of the holder of the visa, the revocation can be subject to the application of the rule of reciprocity. The problem in this case is the status of the ICC of which the United States is not even a member. ICC is not a state. It is just a multilateral institution without its own law enforcement agents. In other words, there is not much it can do to sanction the United States.

Second, there is the serious problem of how to compel or punish a country which is not a signatory to an agreement to comply with the obligations not created for it and without the existence of a supranational authority to enforce the agreement. To put it differently in this regard, which country or coalition of countries will compel the United States to rescind its decision when the US has a policy of ‘America First’? This is one major issue at the level of North Korea’s nuclearisation programme against which the United States Stood.

Third is the purpose of ICC inquiry and the United States opposition to it. US opposition to it can only prevent inquiries on American soil, not in other places. It will only also restrict the movement of the American suspects within the United States. And more importantly, the United States is only deliberately aiding and abetting war crimes for which the United States cannot but be also held liable. United States’ international responsibility is at stake.
Fourth is the implied Israelo-Arab conflict. The United States wants to sanction anyone who wants to prosecute Israeli soldiers for any war crimes. Israel is on record to have been engaging in several humanitarian crimes. In fact, it was apparently in reaction to the call by the Palestinian Authority to the ICC to investigate the various abuses committed by Israeli troops in the West Bank and also as an ally of the US in the case of Afghanistan that the United States is similarly seeking protection of Israel.

Fifth, the United States soldiers are not only the war crime suspects. The Taliban, the ISIS, Afghan security forces, foreign and domestic spy agencies, government-affiliated war lords, US troops, etc, are all involved. The international challenge cannot but be to ask: why try others and exclude the American soldiers? By preventing any inquiry into the alleged excesses of American troops, is the US not implicitly admitting guiltiness of its troops? Where is the credibility, fairness and justice on which democratic values are predicated? Is ‘America First’ attainable as a tactic and objective in light of Donald Trump’s mania of political governance? Can the US have its greatness increased in international relations? Why acceptance of protectionism at home but its rejection abroad? The US refused to sign the Rome Statute but opted to sign agreements with some signatories to the Statute in order to protect its interests. US cannot support the trial of Charles Taylor by the ICC and be against the investigation of US soldiers. Why deny the killers of Jamal Kashoggi in Istanbul US visa while similar crimes are levied against US soldiers? In fact, why seek to try Al-Bashir of Sudan? It is precisely these contradictions in US foreign policy attitudinal disposition that have the potential to frustrate the dream of a greater America, and ‘America First’ policy.