“The wise man builds bridges; the fool builds walls.” That was the sentiment splashed all over recent Chinese editorial pages when the United States imposed 25 percent tariffs on some $50 billion of Chinese goods. Unfortunately, that isolationist approach extends beyond U.S. trade policy in ways that are not just foolish, but also unethical — and they are depleting what’s left of the West’s moral authority.

When it comes to trade, China of course immediately retaliated with its own tariffs on $50 billion of U.S. imports, just as Canada, the European Union and Mexico are retaliating for U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. Such disputes, if they continue to escalate, will hurt people all over the world — not least U.S. consumers, businesses and workers.

Worse, in recent months, U.S. President Donald Trump ordered a zero-tolerance immigration policy that treats all adults crossing the border illegally — a misdemeanor — as if they were violent criminals. That has meant referring even asylum seekers for prosecution and, most controversially, taking away their children to be detained separately. More than 2,300 minors have been placed in shelters. Succumbing to political pressure, Trump signed an executive order stating that parents and children would be detained together. But that order itself may be illegal; while a federal court considers the issue, prosecutions will continue and there is no plan in place for reuniting families that have already been divided.

The Trump administration’s policy of separating families has faced heavy criticism, including from unexpected places. Laura Bush — the wife of George W. Bush, the president responsible for the inhumane wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — condemned the policy. The images of separated children were, she argued, “eerily reminiscent of the internment camps for U.S. citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent during World War II, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history.”

Trump’s own wife Melania said, via a spokesperson, that she “hates to see” children separated from their families. Even China — which reportedly has as many as 1,500 political prisoners — chimed in. And no sooner had America made itself vulnerable to lecturing by such countries than Trump withdrew the U.S. from the United Nations Human Rights Council.

But the U.S. is not alone in pursuing policies that betray values that it long espoused. In Italy, the new right-wing populist government has begun targeting the Roma population, and Matteo Salvini, the interior minister and deputy prime minister, has been turning away ships carrying rescued migrants.

Hungary, for its part, has just adopted the Stop Soros Law, which criminalizes any effort by an individual or NGO to help an illegal immigrant claim asylum. It is named after George Soros, the Hungarian-born financier and founder of the Open Society Foundations, whom Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban accuses of encouraging mass immigration to weaken European nations.

All of this highlights a deepening crisis of ethical leadership that could do as much damage as uncontrolled migration or even a trade war. Beyond the cruel policies that it enables, it risks emboldening governments like those in China and Russia, as it makes them seem reasonable, even reliable.

This is already happening. The St. Petersburg Economic Forum, which had lost substantial clout after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, was back in business this year, with President Vladimir Putin presiding over discussions involving the likes of French President Emmanuel Macron, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and International Monetary Fund President Christine Lagarde.

To secure these figures’ participation, Putin did not need to admit any mistakes or re-commit to democracy or the rule of law. On the contrary, since the event, Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian filmmaker detained during the annexation of Crimea, launched a hunger strike in the name of the 64 Ukrainian political prisoners held in Russia.

But while Western governments issue statements critical of Russia — for its detention of Sentsov and of another 150 religious and political prisoners — their commitment to isolating Putin’s Russia for its behavior is clearly waning. Add to that unethical domestic policies and Western claims to “moral leadership” ring increasingly hollow.

Now, Putin and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, can feel freer than ever to ignore Western criticism, but even to hold forth on the benefits of building bridges. Nor is that a mere metaphor: under Putin’s leadership, Russia has built at least a half-dozen bridges, including one connecting Crimea to Russia’s mainland. Such projects, like those undertaken prior to the World Cup, look good. A hunger strike does not. Fortunately for Putin, in a world where nationalism has been undermining the authority of international law and multilateral institutions, morality is more relative than ever. And, relative to the likes of Trump, Putin does not look so bad.

Yet the erosion of democratic ideals can hardly be blamed solely on Trump; after all, America’s human-rights record is far from unblemished. Under President Bill Clinton, the U.S. was one of only seven countries that voted against the establishment of the International Criminal Court, which every subsequent U.S. president has refused to join. Then there was Bush’s capricious War on Terror, followed by Barack Obama’s military intervention in Libya, Somalia and Yemen, in defiance of international law. Clearly, Trump is far from the first U.S. president to flout global agreements or structures.

Europe is not above reproach, either. As Putin has pointed out, the West’s response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea reflects something of a double standard, given that the EU, together with the U.S., supported Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008.

After World War II, the world — led by the U.S. and Europe — reassessed international norms and institutions and created the pillars of today’s rules-based global order. A similar reassessment is needed today, perhaps shaped by two major crises of our times: migration and international terror. But Trump’s self-serving “America First” approach is no way forward. Nor can Russia or China be trusted to defend human rights. At a time when the EU lacks the confidence and coherence to reclaim its values and champion them globally, who will?

Nina L. Khrushcheva is a professor of international affairs at The New School and a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute. © Project Syndicate, 2018

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