Here’s something you don’t hear every day: The world today is safer, freer, healthier, wealthier, and better educated than pretty much any point in human history.
Over the past 25 years, conflict has become increasingly rare, the number of electoral democracies has increased dramatically, the global extreme poverty rate has gone from around 50 percent to approximately 1 in 10. Global life expectancy and access to education, health care, and basic sanitation has steadily improved.
These extraordinary gains have transformed the lives of billions of people. But they are far from permanent. Indeed, the greatest priority of any US president should be to ensure that these advances are consolidated and made more difficult to reverse. Instead, over the past two weeks, decisions and statements made by President Trump have gone in the opposite direction.
Let’s start with Trump’s recent overseas trip. This odyssey in diplomatic incompetence was capped off by a visit with America’s NATO allies, in which the US president refused to publicly state his support for Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, which says that an attack on one NATO member is an attack on all. The extraordinary two-decade decrease in interstate wars and conflict, in general, has happened, in part, because of military alliances like NATO and a global consensus on the unacceptability of interstate war. Both have helped to deter military conflict.
Trump’s omission, however, sends a signal to President Vladimir Putin of Russia that an attack on a NATO member may not be met with a US military response. Weakening NATO in this manner undermines the alliance’s deterrent capabilities, increases the risks to European security, and weakens the United States with its key foreign allies.
Another reason why war has declined is because democracy and respect for human rights has increased. One of the few truisms of international relations is that democracies rarely go to war against each other. But in the past few years, the global movement toward greater political liberty and democratic accountability has begun to slip, and Trump is exacerbating the situation.
First, there was his praise of Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent power grab in Turkey. Then when Turkish security officials beat up anti-Erdogan protesters outside the Turkish Embassy on American soil in Washington, D.C., the Trump administration was conspicuously silent.
Instead, the US president spends his time getting in Twitter fights with the German government and travels to Saudi Arabia to tell despotic rulers that “We are not here to lecture. . . . We are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who, to be or how to worship.”
In recent weeks, the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, made no public comments when the State Department’s annual report on human rights was presented and Trump called the President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines to tell him he’s doing an “unbelievable job” on the Philippines drug problem. That “job” has included the deaths of an estimated 8,000 people, many of whom have died at the hands of police or roving militias in extrajudicial killings. Duterte has even bragged about personally killing drug dealers and users.
Quite simply, when foreign leaders believe they can abuse human rights, subvert democracy and the rule of law, and face no global criticism — particularly from key allies like the United States — they will continue doing it. Others will be emboldened by America’s silence and even encouraged by Trump’s open support for authoritarian thugs.
Finally, there is the most important shift in international affairs over the past several decades — the improvement in the human condition. Here again, the Trump administration is doing far more harm than good. The president’s budget, unveiled last week would slash funding for US diplomatic operations and the foreign aid budget by more than 30 percent.
By one estimate, proposed budget cuts to anti-AIDS programs could lead to one million deaths in sub-Saharan Africa.
Already, the president’s decision to end support for the United Nation’s Population Fund is imperiling family planning and reproductive efforts around the globe.
At the US Agency for International Development, a key program for supporting international agricultural, water, and sanitation programs would be cut by 45 percent. Why does this matter? Because countries whose residents are healthier, live longer, and are optimistic for the future are more likely to be stable and less likely to get involved in wars.
For all the fear-mongering and incessant focus on alleged threat that defines how we talk about the world outside America’s borders, the reality is that we are living in a moment of extraordinary progress and promise. Quite simply, there is no better time in human history to be alive than right now.
But without a commitment to ensuring that this bright present continues into the future, there’s no guarantee it will last. Virtually everything that Donald Trump is doing on foreign policy risks reversing these gains (and I haven’t even mentioned his undermining of efforts to fight global climate change). I can’t imagine many people elected Trump to Make America Ineffectual Again and Make The World Not Great Again, but four months into his disastrous presidency that’s precisely what is happening.Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.