Trump's withdrawal from migration summit shows his nationalist colors

Trump's withdrawal from migration summit shows his nationalist colors
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On Friday, President Trump decided that the United States would boycott this week’s United Nations conference on migration in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. That meeting is intended to advance a global compact for migration, a set of principles to ensure more humane treatment for the world’s swelling population of migrants and refugees. But the Trump administration saw something more nefarious afoot: a U.N. power grab to usurp control over U.S. borders. “Our decisions on immigration policies must always be made by Americans and Americans alone,” U.S. Ambassador Nikki HaleyNikki HaleyGOP primary in NH House race draws national spotlight China's Xi likely to invite Biden to Beijing Olympics: report Nikki Haley calls for cognitive test for older politicians MORE declared in a statement released Saturday. “We will decide how to best control our borders and who will be allowed to enter our country. The global approach…is simply not compatible with U.S. sovereignty.”

The administration’s decision is based on a false premise. The migration compact would leave U.S. immigration policy intact and under the complete control of U.S. elected officials. It would consist simply of unassailable principles to which any civilized nation might subscribe. In rejecting multilateral negotiations, the Trump administration has once again demonstrated its backward looking, “America first” mindset. At the core of this worldview is a defensive and distorted view of U.S. sovereignty, according to which even non-binding agreements infringe unacceptably on U.S. independence and freedom of action. This siege mentality is antithetical to the very concept of American greatness, much less U.S. global leadership.

The Mexico meeting comes at a critical time, as the world grapples with the dual challenges of human displacement and mass migration. From Colombia to Syria to Myanmar, more than 65 million people have been driven from their homes by violent conflict and natural disaster. They are living precariously as refugees, internally displaced persons, or asylum seekers. Tens of millions more are on the move as migrants, embarking on treacherous journeys to escape economic deprivation, oppressive governments, and ecological degradation, in the hopes of making a better life for themselves.

These twin crises of global displacement and mass migration have left individuals suffering and societies reeling. For the fourth straight year, more than 3,000 refugees and migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean while trying to reach Europe. In Libya, migrants from sub-Saharan Africa are being auctioned off in slave markets. In Myanmar, more than 600,000 Rohingya have been driven across the border into Bangladesh in what the United Nations calls a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

In September 2016, the United States joined 192 other U.N. member states for a summit on refugees and migrants, where they pledged to uphold humanitarian law and treat migrants and refugees with respect. They further agreed to negotiate separate compacts for migrants and for refugees. The Puerto Vallarta meeting aims to advance the former goal. Participants will negotiate the text of a global compact for “safe, orderly, and regular migration,” which the U.N. General Assembly can endorse in September 2018. The document is not intended to be legally binding.

Rather, it will embody a shared understanding of contemporary migration dynamics and the rights of migrants. Nevertheless, Ambassador Haley declared that the draft text “contains numerous provisions that are inconsistent with U.S. immigration and refugee policies and the Trump administration’s immigration principles.” According to Colum Lynch of Foreign Policy, White House advisor Stephen Miller, Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsThose predicting Facebook's demise are blowing smoke If bitcoin is 'digital gold,' it should be taxed like gold The metaverse is coming — society should be wary MORE, and White House chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE have been the administration’s hardliners.

With Friday’s decision, President Trump has again shown his nationalist colors, as when he renounced the Paris Climate Agreement in June. The stated rationale is the same: protecting American “sovereignty” from the alleged depredations of multilateral agreements. Once again, the argument is hogwash. To state what should be obvious, a U.S. decision to enter an international accord consistent with the U.S. Constitution is an expression of sovereignty, not its abdication. The United States is party to thousands of treaties, including several hundred multilateral conventions. It is no less “sovereign” as a result. One can argue about a particular treaty’s merits, but unless it is imposed on the United States, U.S. sovereign authority remains intact.

Finally, by absenting itself from multilateral negotiations, the United States forfeits any influence over their ultimate direction, including the definition of appropriate principles of state conduct toward migrants. (Reportedly, both Ambassador Haley and Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonHillicon Valley — Blinken unveils new cyber bureau at State Blinken formally announces new State Department cyber bureau Hillicon Valley — TikTok, Snapchat seek to distance themselves from Facebook MORE recommended that the United States participate in the Puerto Vallarta talks precisely to retain such influence, before being overruled by White House nationalists).

The Trump administration’s attitude toward sovereignty betrays a paranoia unbecoming of the world’s most powerful nation. It depicts the United States like Gulliver in Lilliput, beset at every turn by weaker nations that would tie it down, constrain its choices, and infringe on its prerogatives. Rather than donning the mantle of leadership, cultivating followers, and forging consensus around U.S. priorities, the beleaguered giant slinks behind the walls of Fortress America. Such a feeble, defensive crouch ignores the essence of sovereignty in a global age, namely, that global engagement is the most effective way to shape America’s destiny.

To be clear, participating in treaty negotiations does not justify going along to get along, or accepting global conventions that unduly infringe on U.S. prerogatives. The United States must retain its sovereign authority over migrant and refugee policies. Any global compact on migration, moreover, should be narrow in scope, limited to general principles and obligations for the humane treatment, rather than aspiring to create an authoritative global “regime” that would, for instance, seek to allocate numbers of migrants by country. But the most obvious way to advance such aims is for U.S. diplomats roll up their sleeves and negotiate vigorously to ensure that the final compact reflects U.S. preferences and interests. Instead, President Trump has quit the field before the game has even been played.

Stewart Patrick is the James Binger senior fellow in global governance at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “The Sovereignty Wars: Reconciling American with the World.”