An early test of Trump’s ‘America First’ at the UN

In its first confrontation with Russia, the Trump administration stands up for a long-held American value of protecting innocent life in conflicts. 

Human Rights Watch provided this photo that purportedly shows the remnant of a yellow gas cylinder found in Masaken Hanano, Aleppo, after a chlorine attack on Nov.18, 2016.

When President Trump first proclaimed an “America First” approach to foreign affairs, it was not clear if he meant the American people or American values. But after his first confrontation with Russia at the United Nations, the meaning may be a bit more clear.

On Feb. 28, the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, put forth a resolution in the Security Council to punish Syria for its latest use of chemical weapons on civilians in a war that has lasted nearly six years. The Trump administration, along with Western allies, was alarmed at a new UN report that found Syrian helicopters had dropped internationally banned chlorine bombs in residential areas last year, resulting in hundreds of civilian casualties.

“The continued use of chlorine by Syrian forces evinces a blatant disregard for international legal obligations, and also amounts to the war crime of indiscriminate attacks against a civilian population,” the UN report stated.

Russia and China vetoed the measure, which would have imposed a travel ban and asset freeze on 11 Syrian military commanders and officials. The veto then evoked this response from Ms. Haley: “It is a sad day on the Security Council when members start making excuses for other member states killing their own people.”

The resolution, along with the ambassador’s words, were a clear assertion of an international norm designed to avoid the use of mass weapons that can easily cause indiscriminate killing of civilians. The norm applies especially to chemical and biological weapons. In 1925, after the chemical attacks of World War I, much of the world began to endorse protocols against the use and stockpiling of such weapons. The latest protocol, the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, has been endorsed by 192 nations.

The United States has long been a champion of humanitarian rules for the protection of innocent people from indiscriminate harm in war. Its security forces, such as the remote pilots of predatory drones, are trained to honor this value. And any erosion of the international taboo has brought instinctive responses by previous US presidents. 

The Trump administration seems to have joined this chorus, standing up for values not only American but widely shared by other nations. If that’s putting America first, bring it on.

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