Is It Time to Boycott the United States?

In his infinite ignorance, Donald Trump has invited world leaders to the White House for a face-to-face meeting at the end of June.

Unlike the other countries in the G7, the United States has yet to get the coronavirus pandemic under control. One of the hotspots that the White House itself has identified is none other than Washington, DC. And because of a poorly implemented re-opening of the economy, the American South is already beginning to experience a second wave of infections — in parts of Florida, Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Texas – that will gather force by the end of June because Trump refuses to consider another lockdown.

Meanwhile, the president himself is reluctant to practice social distancing or even don a mask: “Wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens — I just don’t see it,” he said back in April. He peddles snake-oil treatments for COVID-19 that, incredibly, he swallows himself. The virus has already penetrated his inner sanctum.

As if that’s not bad enough, I wouldn’t put it past Trump to add three stops on a G7 itinerary — a nursing home, a prison, and a meat-packing plant — just to demonstrate that the United States is open for business (or to infect the world leaders that he has always despised).

Aside from French President Emanuel Macron, these world leaders have not jumped at the chance to set foot in the global epicenter of the pandemic. Naturally, they’re concerned about their own health.

Really they should be concerned about the health of American democracy. Instead of giving Donald Trump the legitimacy on the world stage that he so desperately craves, the leaders of the other G7 nations should be considering a boycott of the United States. They should threaten to sanction America as well, for that is the only language Trump understands.

The G7 has done it before — with Russia. In March 2014, after it annexed Crimea, Russia was indefinitely expelled from what was then the G8. The United States, the European Union, and several other countries also imposed economic sanctions on Moscow because of its actions in Ukraine. Most of those sanctions are still in place.

Trump hasn’t invaded and annexed any foreign territory, though he’s been eying Greenland for some time now. But under Trump, the United States has violated several international laws, unraveled numerous international agreements, and trampled on one democratic institution after another at home. He is a rogue president in a rogue party presiding over a rogue power.

As the president attempts to extend his reign of error to a second term, the international community should consider sending a message to the American people: Donald Trump is an illegitimate leader who is a threat to the planet. Mere criticism of the United States is not enough. The G7 should get the ball rolling by refusing to meet with Trump, in Washington or anywhere else.

I anticipate the Twitter backlash: Isn’t it unpatriotic for Americans to call for a boycott of their own country?

Quite the contrary. It’s proof of just how far patriotic Americans are willing to go to save our country and stop the violations of international law.

Violations at the Border

In one of the first acts of his administration, Trump issued a ban on travel to the United States from seven countries, all of them predominantly Muslim.

Federal courts almost immediately blocked the executive order. Trump reissued an almost identical travel ban. The courts blocked him a second time. Trump tried a third time, throwing in North Korea and Venezuela to obscure the intention of the order. Although the federal court system again blocked the Muslim ban, the Supreme Court allowed the administration to implement the policy as it reviewed the case. In June 2018, the Supreme Court upheld the ban 5-4.

Although the Supreme Court has decided by a slim margin that Trump’s action is legal in the U.S. context, his Muslim travel ban remains a violation of international law. It flouts all the UN conventions against discrimination, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It also violates the Refugee Convention. Imagine the uproar if a country promoted a Christian travel ban. The United States would be first in line to apply sanctions.

But the Muslim travel ban was just the first volley in the administration’s attack on border crossers and international law.

Within a few months of taking office, the Trump administration began to tear apart migrant families. Before the courts could intervene, over 4,000 children were separated from their parents. Even worse, the administration did not track these family separations, so it couldn’t guarantee that children could reunite with their families. Even when a judge blocked the policy in June 2018, the administration continued its “zero-tolerance” policy, simply under a different name, and separated another 1,100 children from their families.

This is not just a violation of international law. It’s a moral outrage.

It’s gotten even worse. During the pandemic crisis, the administration has violated U.S. anti-trafficking laws by expelling hundreds of young people from the country. Write Nomaan Merchant and Sonia Perez in The Washington Post:

Under a 2008 anti-trafficking law and a federal court settlement known as the Flores agreement, children from countries other than Canada and Mexico must have access to legal counsel and cannot be immediately deported. They are also supposed to be released to family in the U.S. or otherwise held in the least restrictive setting possible. The rules are intended to prevent children from being mistreated or falling into the hands of criminals. 

Even before the pandemic hit, the administration was violating non-refoulement laws. In July 2019, the administration changed its asylum policies to force the desperate to apply for asylum in a third country before reaching the United States.

The result has been the wholesale rejection of asylum claims. Only 1 percent of applicants under the Migrant Protection Protocols had been granted asylum through the end of January, and only two people have been granted refuge since March. According to the principle of non-refoulement, asylum-seekers can’t be returned to countries where they might face persecution.

The July 2019 action was only the latest barrier the administration has placed before asylum-seekers, all of which constitute violations of the non-refoulement principle. In November 2018, Trump attempted to block all asylum seekers from entering the United States through Mexico. A federal court ruled the policy illegal and prevented him from doing so.

This March, the administration tried again, using the pandemic as a new rationale. It generated pushback, but the administration shut down the possibility of asylum anyway. And it has started sending asylum-seekers back as part of the “Remain in Mexico” program.

Taken together, the Trump policies on immigration, refugee, and asylum policies are a massive affront to decades of patiently constructed international laws.

Targeted Assassination

So many people have been assassinated by U.S. drones that Americans have become dangerously inured to this violation of international law.

The Obama administration was responsible for the expansion of this program. But Trump has expanded even on Obama’s expansion. Worse, according to a new policy implemented last year, the administration no longer reports on the number of drone strikes and resulting civilian casualties outside of active warzones, which include Pakistan and Somalia.

Whether these drone strikes constitute a violation of international law hinges on whether they represent assassination, which is illegal, or lawful targeting in armed conflict. If the latter, they are permissible if done in self-defense or as approved by the United Nations. According to these standards, administration officials argue that the drone strikes the United States conducts in a warzone — for example, Afghanistan — are indistinguishable from more conventional aerial bombing.

But because so many U.S. drone strikes take place outside war zones where the United States is a declared combatant, international law experts like Philip Alston, former UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killing, have concluded that they often violate international law. Alston was particularly concerned about the CIA’s role in conducting drone strikes, which the Obama administration eventually scaled back after steadily increasing them. Trump, however, has reversed Obama’s policy.

Most of Trump’s drone strikes have been quiet and anonymous, at least so far as the U.S. media is concerned. The targets have also been, for the most part, non-state actors, so-called terrorists. The assassination in January of Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was a different matter. He was a representative of a state with which the United States is not at war. The Trump administration might consider him a “terrorist.” But according to international law, the drone strike that killed him was an assassination, no different than if a U.S. attack had taken out Iran’s president.

The Trump administration claimed that the strike was done in “self-defense,” that Soleimani was planning an attack or attacks on U.S. targets. But it did not furnish any real proof of these imminent attacks. Soleimani’s past record, however noxious, does not constitute sufficient legal rationale for assassination.

Other Trump administration military actions have also violated international law, such as the 59 Tomahawk missiles it rained down on Syria in April 2017. The administration didn’t even bother to seek UN authorization. Nor did it do so a year later when it launched another missile attack on Syria in response to the government’s alleged use of chemical weapons.

The Trump administration could have argued that it was protecting a civilian population from extermination. But the missile attack came before a fact-finding mission could determine whether chemical weapons had been used. In any case, neither then nor subsequently has the Trump administration seemed to care much about protecting the lives of Syrian civilians.

But these Syrian attacks point to another reason to boycott the United States: the Trump administration’s fundamental disregard for international institutions and agreements.

International Agreements Sundered

The Trump administration has been gradually ripping up the international arms control regime that has been in place for decades.

First, it stepped away from the Iran nuclear agreement, which blocked the country’s path to acquiring nuclear weapons. Last year, it withdrew from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Agreement, a high point of U.S.-Russian efforts at arms limitation. And then, last week, it announced it would no longer participate in the Open Skies agreement, another landmark achievement to prevent accidental war that was negotiated in 1992.

Meanwhile, Trump wants to resume testing nuclear weapons, something that hasn’t happened in nearly 30 years. Technically, because the United States is not party to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), Trump’s action would not violate an international agreement. But if the United States were to go ahead with a test, it would put enormous stress on the CTBT, which 184 nations have signed.

The administration’s arms control policy has become positively Orwellian. Trump’s arms control envoy Marshall Billingslea, for instance, seems to believe mistakenly that he was appointed head of the Pentagon. “We know how to win these [arms] races and we know how to spend the adversary into oblivion,” he said in a recent videoconference. What part of “control” does he not understand?

In addition to abandoning arms control, the Trump administration has hindered efforts to control carbon emissions by trashing the Paris climate accord. It has withdrawn from the UN Human Rights Council. It quit UNESCO. It has threatened to leave the World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization.

So, at what point does the international community decide that it has been attacked enough to strike back in self-defense? A boycott and economic sanctions seem more than justified given these three areas of violations: international human rights law, the laws governing the use of force, and the deliberate destruction of international agreements and institutions.

The Downsides of Boycott?

Okay, so what if the Trump administration deserves to be boycotted. That doesn’t mean that it’s strategically wise to do so.

After all, if all the globalists gang up on Trump, won’t that create a rally-around-the-president effect just in time for the November election? The very tactic designed to delegitimate Trump might end up boosting his reelection prospects.

Then there’s the perennial problem that name-and-shame tactics often don’t work with people or countries that refuse to be shamed. Virtually the entire international community agrees that the human rights situation in North Korea is abysmal. But the North Korean state doesn’t really care about the reputational damage it suffers as a result of all the official protests, UN inquiries, and grassroots campaigns. Trump seems to be similarly unshameable.

Finally, there is the challenge of collective action. The United States, despite its current difficulties, remains a powerful global actor. It’s not easy to pull together a coalition in the face of an administration determined to make deals with specific countries to destroy the unanimity required to implement a boycott and sanctions.

The first two counter-arguments are unpersuasive. At this point, nothing the international community can do will significantly alter Trump’s approval ratings. He has played his nationalism card so many times that the gambit can no longer win fresh converts. But there are still some independents and perhaps even some Republicans who would be swayed if the rest of the G7 censured the United States. These swing voters might still feel shame, too, if the international community repeatedly broadcasts the administration’s multiple violations of international law.

But let’s face it, the collective action problem is probably insurmountable. The G7 nations don’t have the guts to stand up to the United States. Trump acts with impunity, and they appease him. Thanks to the Chamberlains of the world, Trump has celebrated a Munich practically every day of his administration.

So, it’s up to popular movements to challenge Trump’s illegal actions and the international community’s appeasement of them. In developing a Boycott, Divest, Sanction campaign against the Trump administration, activists can take inspiration from the groups that worked with South Africans in the 1980s to bring down their apartheid regime.

I know, I know: everyone is hoping that Americans will solve this problem ourselves in November. But that might not happen.

So, people of the world, you’d better build your BDS box, paint “Break Glass in Case of Emergency” on the front, and stand next to it on November 3. If Trump wins on Election Day, it will be mourning in America. But let’s hope that the world doesn’t mourn: it organizes.

Foreign Policy In Focus, May 27, 2020


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