The Trump administration has declared 2020 the year of “Freedom First,” though you would be forgiven for having missed it.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made the announcement at an event on human trafficking mid-January, to little fanfare. “The Department of State declares 2020 the year of ‘Freedom First,’ in recognition that human dignity, autonomy, and freedom are essential to the exercise of our rights and liberties,” he said.
The challenge will be to develop this core idea into a full-fledged strategy that advances fundamental freedoms while giving the United States an edge in its contest with adversaries such as China and Iran.
The “Freedom First” declaration follows other significant moves in a similar direction over the past year. In July 2019, the administration announced a new Commission on Unalienable Rights. Several months later, President Trump reauthorized the Commission on International Religious Freedom as part of a major spending bill. The administration can now give a name to its human rights efforts: Freedom First.
Perhaps the administration’s resurgent human rights rhetoric is only a cudgel being used to pressure U.S. enemies. It certainly represents a sharp break from Trump’s earlier attempts at flattery toward Pyongyang, North Korea, and Beijing, and moral equivocation toward Moscow. But those concerned for human rights should herald positive action on this front.
Even better, the ire the president has directed at some adversaries may already be working. Iranian protesters have once again flooded the streets, protesting a regime that has repressed and robbed the public to fund terrorism and atrocities abroad. Four-thousand miles away, protesters in Hong Kong are likewise in the streets, and officials within the Chinese Communist Party have begun leaking devastating details about the “reeducation camps” it operates in Xinjiang.
Whereas President Barack Obama opted for silence during Iran’s 2009 Green Revolution, Trump has consistently spoken in support of protests. Last month, in perhaps the single most shared Farsi-language tweet in history, Trump promised protesters he would “continue to stand with you.” In another tweet the next day, Trump set two red lines for the regime in Iran. One was familiar: “No nuclear weapons.” One was new: “Don’t kill your protesters.”
Without question, Trump’s defense of human rights in Iran is part of his overall “maximum pressure” policy, which included the elimination of Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s top facilitator of terror. Critics of Trump’s credibility on human rights should take note of his results. Though the outcome remains uncertain, protesters have repeatedly chanted, “America is not the enemy; the enemy is right here.”
After Tehran downed a civilian airliner in January, killing 82 of its own citizens, several Iranian journalists publicly resigned, no longer willing to lie on behalf of the regime. The regime now faces pressure from within and without, illustrating how a strong human rights policy can reinforce strategic priorities.
Events with China may follow a similar arc. In November, Trump signed a veto-proof bill supporting hundreds of thousands of protesters in Hong Kong, who marched to defend their liberties from Beijing’s impositions. China protested Trump’s support for the people of Hong Kong, warning the decision risked troubles for a potential trade deal. Yet the administration persisted, and the trade deal was signed in December.
Speaking to American technology leaders last month, Pompeo called for pressure against Beijing. He cautioned Silicon Valley against helping “power a truly Orwellian surveillance state.” In the same speech, Pompeo urged companies to “make sure American principles aren’t sacrificed for prosperity.”
Of course, a more consistent human rights policy amplifies that effect. Should people in the U.S. show a serious willingness to adhere to principle, rather than cave in pursuit of profit margins, their adversaries will take note. Doing so is in the national interest, and the president deserves support whenever he rightly commits the power of his office to targeting adversaries for their human rights failings.
To use its human rights arsenal effectively, the administration should once again have an undersecretary of state for civilian security, democracy, and human rights. This role, the top human rights post in the U.S., remains vacant after more than two years. The administration should continue ratcheting up sanctions on the worst abusers of Iranians. It should sign into law the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act. Perhaps most importantly, in his State of the Union address on Tuesday, the president should detail how “Freedom First” will feature in a broader America First doctrine in the year to come.
When Trump delivers his address to Congress, the world’s regimes will be watching. So too will no small number of their citizens. Both will be gauging U.S. resolve, with vastly different hopes. In putting freedom first, the U.S. should leave no doubt.