Dawn over Midnight: a brighter future for international norms

O! say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light …


Francis Scott Key’s poem The Defence of Fort McHenry, later renamed The Star Spangled Banner, recounts the Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812. Detained by the British, Key witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry on the night of 13-14 September 1814. As dawn was breaking, he feared he would see the dreadful sight of the Union Jack flying over Fort McHenry. Instead, elatedly, he saw the Star Spangled Banner, the American flag, proudly standing. The Americans had prevailed. The tumultuous Trump presidency, which, to half the nation and many others around the globe, has felt like an incessant bombardment of insults, venom, and ill-will, is coming to an end. The battle for the soul of America has yet to be won, the struggle for a more perfect union remains, but dawn is breaking.

Dawn. The White House, by Jamie Wyeth

Four years ago, the morning after the US elections, I rushed to change the post I had prepared. Like many others, I had assumed that Hilary Clinton would win. The post I had prepared Dawn over Midnight was re-worked to Midnight over Dawn.

I was lukewarm on Clinton. Though an unapologetic internationalist with sensible geo-strategic thinking, I feared Clinton was too eager to drag the US into unwise military interventions. She was, however, also aligned with my sentiments on most domestic issues, making her the better candidate. Though troubled by her hubristic and at times imprudent traits, she was smart, disciplined, and hard-working. And despite his peccadilloes, First Gentleman Bill – perhaps the most gifted politician of his generation – would also be on hand for sage counsel.

Trump on the other hand came across as a “kook”, “crazy”, and “unfit for office” – just as Senator Lindsey Graham described him before turning into Dear Leader’s sycophantically dependable poodle. As it turned out, Trump was every bit the racist, bigot, xenophobe, liar, tax cheat, sexual offender, crook, and fraud many had suspected. But that is another conversation.

I pulled an all-nighter during the election in 2016, experiencing what is now recognized as Election Anxiety syndrome. Smoking cigars and drinking cognac, I watched the election results trickle in. As it became clear that Trump had won, I hastily rewrote my post, forecasting that he would flaunt international norms and would likely drag the US into conflict with his bellicose rhetoric and utter ignorance of statecraft.

I was off on the conflicts. But I was way off on his lack of understanding or unwillingness to understand the importance of respecting international norms and appreciating international institutions, and why the US, as the predominate power for a bit more (its decline is inescapable) needed to be fully engaged in multilateralism.

Trump ran a campaign of doom and gloom. Supposedly, the US was about a minute before midnight because it was “more talk than action” under previous administrations. If America were to become “great again,” it needed to unilaterally act boldly – to solely concern itself with its own narrow (and in Trump’s world, transactional) interests, ignore global issues, disengage from international institutions, abandon inconvenient international norms, insult and shakedown the US’s allies and friends, etc. And be led by someone with a strong-man mentality the likes of Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Mohammed bin Salman, or Kim Jung-un, just to name a few.

Trump’s lack of character, his unwillingness to move beyond his flawed and often foul rhetoric, and his inability to see the world as it is with all its complexities and inescapable interconnectedness of globalization, made for four chaotic, schizophrenic, and unnecessarily antagonistic years. Aside from lacking a functioning moral compass, he proved to be a man-child of no distinguishable intellect, talent, or knowledge required of the President of the US – particularly in these times with a global pandemic, which he virtually ignored to the peril of millions of Americans. His talents and interests lied elsewhere – mainly in branding, lying, dissembling, defecting, profiteering, and grifting.

Has America become great again?

America, with all its shortcomings and past dubious practices,(for example, propping up dictators and interfering in other states’ affairs, which, by the way, the US had been doing well before it became fashionable through hacking and social media manipulation) never stopped being great. This is if “great” is measured by its overall engagement in world affairs, its generosity in aid, and its capacity to lead based on democratic, and yes, universal, values. Never perfect at home or abroad, and with plenty of tragic mishaps (invading Iraq is but one example), the US pursued a restrained realpolitik grounded in international norms, coalition building, and in no small measure, a cooperative spirit towards international organizations, many of which it helped create post-WWII.

Post-Trump America is weaker, shallower, and more insular.

Post-Trump America is weaker, shallower, and more insular. President-elect Joe Biden will have his hands full. Never mind the sad domestic state of affairs. COVID-19 will not make his job easier. Trump has brainwashed many of his faithful followers with the idea that in the US, with nearly a quarter of a million dead and counting, unabatingly, COVID-19 is rounding the corner and will magically go away. COVID-19, racial inequality, wealth inequality, health care, high unemployment, a ravaged economy, are but a few of the domestic issues Biden will need to tackle from day one of his presidency and throughout. But that’s not even half of it.

Viewed from abroad, Biden inherits a US that is a shadow of itself – a parody led by an unstable, insecure, narcissistic, unreliable buffoon. From trade to environment to nuclear proliferation to regional conflicts to territorial disputes to international cooperation, Biden will need to re-engage. Considering his many years of serving as a member and Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as well as his weighty experiences as Vice President under President Barak Obama, we can expect a nuanced foreign policy absent the inane bellicosity that has been the hallmark of the Trump administration.

We can expect a more prudent use of soft power and a re-engagement in pressing global matters, such as combating climate change based on the Paris Agreement. We can expect a greater appreciation for international norms and international institutions. And we can also expect a cooperative attitude towards the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the revocation of Trump’s Executive Order imposing retaliatory sanctions on certain ICC staff, namely those working in and with the ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor.

But there are limits. We should not expect Biden to embrace the ICC to the extent that he would cede any of US’s jurisdiction and sovereignty to it. That is a bridge too far. Pragmatically, the US need not sign on to the Rome Statute to play a positive role in ICC affairs. Constructive engagement is not trifling.

On the broader international stage, cleaning up Trump’s mess won’t be easy. A lot of relationships have been broken. Credibility lost. Reputation squandered. Even as Biden repairs and restores, any foreign power – friend or foe – will not be able to help but remember that it could all blow up again in four years. Reluctance to readily go all-in with the US or accord due deference, as if Trump was just a really bad dream, will be understandable. Biden has his work cut out for him.

Morning in America remains distant, but dawn is approaching after four years of near midnight.


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Author: Michael G. Karnavas

Michael G. Karnavas is an American trained lawyer. He is licensed in Alaska and Massachusetts and is qualified to appear before the various International tribunals, including the International Criminal Court (ICC). Residing and practicing primarily in The Hague, he is recognized as an expert in international criminal defence, including, pre-trial, trial, and appellate advocacy.

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