US Elections Untangled – EP 16: Will the US rejoin the fight against war crimes? (with Katja Creutz)


Is the American democracy itself at stake in the 2020 elections? Will foreign powers try to interfere with the elections again? What is the significance of these elections to climate change, NATO or the American relationship with Russia, China and Iran?

FIIA Podcast US Elections Untangled dives deep into the big questions surrounding the 2020 elections. Drawing on the expertise of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA), the series looks mainly at the international relations implications of the elections.


US Elections Untangled – EP 16: Will the US rejoin the fight against war crimes? (with Katja Creutz)

The US has always had a tricky relationship with the UN and the International Criminal Court, but under President Donald Trump the attitude towards those international bodies has become downright hostile.

How different will the US treat the UN, the ICC and human rights issues if Joe Biden wins the election? There are many crucial differences between the two candidates’ approaches, says Leading Researcher Katja Creutz from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

“America first is not a policy that puts human beings first.”

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Read the text version of the episode

[recording starts]


[Podcast intro 00:00:01]:  Welcome to US Elections Untangled, a podcast series brought to you by the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.


[Playback of Trump 00:00:09]: ”From this day forward a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward it’s going to be only America first. America first.”


[Playback of Biden 00:00:27]: ”Donald Trump’s brand of America first has too often lead to America alone.”


Maria Annala (host): [00:00:35]: Hi everyone and welcome to US Elections Untangled. I’m Maria Annala from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs and I’m going to be your host throughout this podcast series. In today’s episode, we’ll be talking about the US’s role in international cooperation. Our guest today is leading researcher Katja Creutz from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.


Annala: [00:01:05]: Hi Katja, thanks for being here.


Katja Creutz (guest): [00:01:07]: Thanks Maria, it’s a pleasure to be here.


Annala: [00:01:09]: So tomorrow is finally election day and as we have discussed throughout this podcast, a lot is at stake. One of the things that will be greatly influenced by the election outcome is the role the US will play in international organizations and other forms of international cooperation in the next 4 years, and Katja, when we talked about this earlier, you mentioned President Trump started out as indifferent but has since then grown openly hostile towards some forms of international cooperation at least. How would you describe the key differences between the two candidates?


Creutz: [00:01:45]: Well first of all, the candidates have very different world views and everyone know that President Trump is not a believer in international cooperation. He doesn’t believe in international institutions and he doesn’t rely on treaties or international norms in general. So during his time, this has simply declined – the trust in international cooperation. Whereas I would say that Biden, on the other hand, is a believer in international cooperation and multilateralism. So he’s an internationalist and I think he would drastically change how the US appears to the rest of the world if he’s elected.


Annala: [00:02:24]: Yes I agree, but with Trump, talk is one thing but his actions in practice are sometimes quite different. What has Trump done in practice to sort of decrease the US’s participation in international cooperation?


Creutz: [00:02:42]: Well actually he’s done quite a lot, so he has been disruptive from the point of view of international cooperation. We have several examples from different policy fields. We all know that Trump had the US withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, he withdrew from UNESCO, the human rights council of the United Nations, the Iran nuclear deal, Trans-Pacific Partnership he pulled out of, and they have to withdraw from the INF treaty on the intermediate range nuclear forces. He’s withdrawn from other treaties as well and we all remember lately the World Health Organisation and the announcement of withdrawal from there. He has also threatened withdrawal from the WTO, the World Trade Organisation,  somebody even said he might withdraw from the UN, and we’ve all heard rumours about NATO and his commitment to that. So a lot has been happening in the Trump years.


Annala: [00:03:48]: Wow, when you list them like that, it really is a very long list of organizations and treaties that he’s withdrawn from. Even though the media sometimes makes us think that Trump doesn’t really get anything done, that it’s all just scandals and him getting distracted, he actually has accomplished a lot when it comes to this. He has really made a big impact.


Creutz: [00:04:16]: He has really threatened the very fundamentals of the international liberal order, so he has been effective in that sense, true.


Annala: [00:04:26]: Then Biden, well we don’t know what he would do yet but when we look at his campaign promises and what he’s been saying, it looks like he would try to restore the international order. He said he would bring the US back to, for example, the Paris treaty and other treaties, and he really respects allies and has talked about how the US has a really big asset with so many important allies and how they need to be treated with a lot of respect. How much do you think the world leaders’ personalities play into this whole question of international cooperation?


Creutz: [00:05:07]: I’m sure interpersonal relations and chemistry is important and I’m pretty sure that Trump has given grey hairs to many leaders. He seems, as we’ve seen, drawn to autocratic leaders, tough leaders, and this has been problematic for US allies as well. Biden has said that he would not socialize with thugs as Trump has done, so he would be clearly, as you said, trying to restore the US as a respected leader and taking allies into account more.


Annala: [00:05:44]: Yes, I agree. Let’s talk a little bit about the UN, which is perhaps the most important form of international cooperation. Trump has been, not surprisingly, critical of the UN since his campaign. What has he said about the UN?


Creutz: [00:06:02]: Well Trump sees the UN as more of a club for talk, where people get together to talk and have a good time. Personally, I don’t think that’s a bad thing, to have a club where you discuss common issues, but he meant it in a dismissive way, and he also tweeted before being elected that things would really change with him as President and he would treat the UN differently. If we think about his speeches in the general assembly, which is a forum where you try to restore things or go further to agree upon things, he spoke about North Korea being invaded and a little rocket man, and the ideology of globalism. So he hasn’t really fit well into the general assembly floor.


Annala: [00:06:51]: That’s true, I also remember him talking about ”America first” in several of his UN speeches, trying to convince the other leaders that they should all adopt a ”my country first” type of ideology which really goes against the grain of what the UN is all about. Yes, I’m sure they raised a lot of eyebrows and I remember they even laughed once.


Creutz: [00:07:15]: They seemed to be laughing which was then debated whether they were actually or just expressing enthusiasm about Trump’s speech.


Annala: [00:07:24]: Well that’s a nice spin to it definitely. I guess it’s not very polite to admit that one might be laughing to a world leader when they’re giving a UN speech. It’s not just Trump though when it comes to the thorny relationship of the US and UN, hasn’t it been a little problematic under Trump’s predecessors as well?


Creutz: [00:07:50]: Yes, Americans are skeptical of international organizations and I would say that the Republicans in particular have more skepticism towards the UN and other organizations as well. So Trump is not the first President to withdraw, for example, or not participate in the work on the human rights council. Bush also boycotted that when it was established in 2006. While the Republicans have been critical about the UN, they have still employed a dual strategy where they pick and choose what they can cooperate on and then in other fields, they are more skeptical or uncooperative. I think Trump has not employed this ”pick and mix” strategy to an equal degree, he has been more dismissive of the UN overall.


Annala: [00:08:47]: How about in practice? The US used to pay a lot for the UN right? Even though they were critical of it all the time, they still contributed a lot to the budget. Has Trump made a difference there as well in practice?


Creutz: [00:09:03]: Yes, Trump has cut the budget to the UN and what he also did was to cut budgets to UNICEF and the work to help children, and this is perhaps not the way to get popular. Even Americans, while skeptical, have tended to appreciate UNICEF and its work so I would say they are losing on the soft power side with decisions like this. The funding is one issue that Americans are skeptical of when it comes to the UN but it’s also quite a lot to do with Israel, Iran, and value-driven issues such as abortion and reproductive health, and also the UN being bureaucratic. So there’s skepticism about a lot of things.


Annala: [00:09:48]: Yes, I know that Trump has been reactive when it comes to the question of abortion because a lot of his voter base feels very strongly about their anti-abortion approach and he promised to look out for this particular group of voters. So in the UN, the US has been opposing resolutions where there’s language about reproductive health, even though it doesn’t mention abortion, but if it can be read between the lines to be about abortion or has to do with it.


Creutz: [00:10:21]: Well in the UN, I think it’s always important for every country which words or concepts are mentioned, that’s important in all work. We can take one example from this Spring, where the secretary general was pushing for a global ceasefire and the security council was supposed to adopt a resolution embracing this initiative but this didn’t happen for several months because the US wanted to have an insertion in the text of the resolution saying that the pandemic came from China. Of course these issues are sensitive, the text of the resolution is really important but anyway, one can say that the Trump administration has also created stalemates in the security with this insistence on words and anti-China wording. A lot of crucial time is then lost when it comes to important issues.


Annala: [00:11:20]: Well about Joe Biden then. If he wins the presidency, how different do you think that he would be towards the UN?


Creutz: [00:11:29]: Well I think Biden, as an internationalist, would ever speak about leaving or considering to leave the UN first of all. He’s known for being experienced in international affairs and he has supported the UN in Congress. For example, in 1999, there was the Helms-Biden law that was passed where they urged the United States to pay their debts to the UN of one billion US dollars by then. I think Biden would return the United States to active, multilateral fora and diplomacy. I think he also feels that it’s better to be inside than outside of organization. For example, Biden’s advisors have that if you think China has too much influence in the World Health Organization, then it’s better to stay there and fight Chinese dominance instead of leaving altogether.


Annala: [00:12:30]: Yes that would make sense. As an outsider, I would say that if you’re inside, you can at least be a counter force but if the US leaves the World Health Organization, that just leaves more power going to China because power vacuums tend to be filled by somebody.


Creutz: [00:12:45]: This is exactly what Biden has said, that Trump, with his withdrawal from the international scene, has allowed dictators, autocratic leaders to take root and fill the gap, as you said.


Annala: [00:12:59]: I was reading the Biden campaign website the other day and he actually specifically says that, under him, the US would immediately restore the relationship with the World Health Organization, which, while not perfect, is essential to coordinating an international response during a pandemic. So that’s one of his campaign promises, to bring the US back to the World Health Organization.


Creutz: [00:13:22]: That’s important. Global health will be on the agenda for many years to come, irrespective of the pandemic and how we beat it.


Annala: [00:13:29]: Definitely. In what ways has Trumps attitude impacted the UN?


Creutz: [00:13:36]: Well I think it’s an important question, and one example where you can see the impact of Trump being elected is on the secretary general Antonio Guterres. They were elected almost at the same time, a few weeks apart, and I think the Trump administration has negatively affected the political space in which Guterres can act and move. He’s not a big political player, which he thought he could be and he wanted to really bring the UN up back to the top of multilateral diplomacy, but this has failed to materialize and not only because of Trump. China is also on the rise but still, Trump has made it so unpredictable and complicated in many ways, so Guterres has not been the leader of the UN that he probably wanted to be.


[US Elections untangled break]


Annala: [00:14:42]: Trump has been criticized a lot about not caring about human rights, is it true that he hasn’t defended them?


Creutz: [00:14:49]: Well I would say that it’s true because the Trump presidency has not shown any great interest in promoting or protecting human rights internationally, if we take that first. Although the US has traditionally been a crucial party in advocating for human rights, if you look at Nikki Haley, for example, the former US ambassador to the UN. She did arrange humans rights briefing and tried to promote them but I think the overall activity level of the United States in the UN when it comes to human rights has declined. Also, if we think about what happened in June 2018, the United States announced its withdrawal from the UN human rights council and this was done based on the alleged anti-Israel bias of the council. I think this left a big gap in the council work as well. There is a pandemic, and many developments that are challenging human rights nowadays, so the US would really be needed in the council. If we think about the bilateral talks of Trump, they haven’t showed much care for human rights either. So when he negotiated with Kim-Jong Un of North Korea, for example, we all remember that there was no mentioning of human rights, only about nuclear weapons. I think this is unexpected because in 2014, there was a big UN report saying that North Korea commits international crimes, crimes against humanity mainly, and if you discuss with international criminals, one would expect humans rights to at least be mentioned, but he didn’t do it. We can also think about Trump reacted to the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate two year ago, he never harshly criticized the Saudi leaders. There was more concern about arms trade than human rights.


Annala: [00:16:59]: How about domestically? Is the human rights situation all well and good inside the US or has Trump done damage there as well?


Creutz: [00:17:10]: I think the problems are not only at the international level, you’re right that something has happened domestically as well. First of all the zero-tolerance policy on immigration and placing immigrants in detention centres, separating children from families. This shows that ”America first” is not a policy that puts human beings first I think. We have read reports recently about how there are still 545 immigrant children who are separated from their parents and these parents can’t be found anymore, so the problem is ongoing. There have also been reports about forced sterilization of women in detention centres, so I think these are horrific developments. Of course the US has been discussed also to do with racial discrimination and police brutality and violence, the death of George Floyd and many others. This is actually a topic that has come to the human rights council for discussion, so now we have the United States and its problems being discussed in the council. I think this says something about the development overall.


Annala: [00:18:24]: Definitely, that’s unprecedented isn’t it?


Creutz: [00:18:28]: Yes, I can’t remember anything comparable from recent years.


Annala: [00:18:33]: We’ll see how different things get if Joe Biden wins. He, in a New York Times interview early on in his campaign, declared ”when I am President, human rights will be at the core of US foreign policy.” That at least sounds like he wants to do something very different to Trump. It’s of course another thing what he will be able to do in practice.


Creutz: [00:18:56]: Yes, it’s good to hear that they, human rights, will be at the core of foreign policy and that perhaps resembles Jimmy Carter’s policies where human rights were really at the core. This has been discussed though and it’s not clear how he would put them at the core, so I think we have, more or less, just fragments about his human rights policy so far so we have to assume things. Domestically, Biden has been very active with same-sex marriages and the rights of sexual minorities and this is of course a big thing. They are not considered human rights issues by all countries. Then if we look at what he has said about international issues, he has said that he would like to defend dissidents and human rights defenders, particularly from China, which would of course be difficult. Then he also mentions other vulnerable groups and communities and has criticized Trump’s silence on human rights and fronts. Biden has also said that American human rights leadership must begin at home and this means of course that many discrimination issues must be dealt with an eliminated. He has also said that he would rejoin the human rights council, of course that’s on election so it’s not only up to Biden. He would try to increase American capacity to defend human rights globally. This is coming from Biden’s campaign but then it remains to be seen whether he would, as you mentioned, be able to really put this into practice.


Annala: [00:20:40]: Yes I think the pandemic and economic crisis from it will take up a lot of his time and energy if he is elected so it’s unclear how well he will be able to incorporate other important topics, such as the human rights, into his policies. It’s clear that he is going to have to prioritize pandemic response in many ways. He’s also very active on the climate change front, which is also important, but there’s only so many important topics that one can take into consideration at the same time I think, in international dealings.


Creutz: [00:21:19]: Yes and I think nowadays, when all great powers don’t see eye-to-eye on issues, there’s more need for compromises. It might be that you have to compromise in some fields to have gains in others unfortunately.


Annala: [00:21:33]: Yes, for example, to get China to really take an active role in the fight against climate change, it might well be that Western countries have to turn a blind eye to its human rights violations. We’ll see how it all turns out, I really hope that Biden is able to follow through with this idea that the human rights would be central.


Creutz: [00:21:59]: It’s of course a central issue for the US allies and the European Union, who tries to promote and stick to liberal values.


Annala: [00:22:12]: When it comes to the international criminal court, the US’s approach has again been different under President Trump than his predecessors. How has the US’s relationship with the court changed?¨


Creutz: [00:22:24]: Well the United States has never been a part or member of the court, but the US has always supported it financially, perhaps a bit behind the scenes despite not being a member state, and I think the United States, more importantly, has always supported the idea of justice. International criminal justice for atrocities and bringing justice to the victims. These have been important principles and issues but Trump has now changed this support to hostile acts against the court. I think here we see a crucial change really, that he has gone after the court, attacked the court, and this is unprecedented. This all started with the decision of the ICC prosecutor to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity in Afghanistan, which means that you can also investigate non-nationals of Afghanistan acting on Afghanistan’s territory, which means that US soldiers might come under scrutiny and be investigated. This is why Trump has now changed course. First of all, he introduced a visa ban on all ICC personnel if they investigate US nationals and he especially targeted the ICC prosecutor Bensouda with that. This is a clear act of deterrence, he hopes that he will scare them off not to investigate US soldiers. In addition, this year in June, the US imposed sanctions on the ICC personnel, so they can freeze their assets if they again investigate US soldier, and this really sends a strong signal to people who have suffered horrendous wrongs and human rights violations. It also sends a signal to those who committed the crimes and a signal that impunity should reign. This I think is a crucial difference – there is no support for the international criminal justice system anymore to the same degree as before. This has also alarmed international lawyers in the United States and they are scared of writing papers or memos to the court, or cooperating with the court, or asking students to be involved. At the end of the day, they don’t know how US officials will interpret cooperation with the court and whether their assets would be frozen as well.


Annala: [00:25:12]: Wow.


Creutz: [00:25:13]: So now they have tried to address this issue by giving a statement, so almost 200 international lawyers or criminal layers in the United States have signed a statement arguing that the United States usually uses sanctions against terrorists and criminals, not against those who investigate atrocities. They also say that this is against long standing commitment to human rights by the United States and the commitment to the rule of law. They warn that other leaders will follow suit so they are really concerned about the situation, so a clear difference here. We must remember that 123 countries have ratified the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court and a lot of them are US allies, so again, we see the rift between countries here.


Annala: [00:26:10]: I’m sure it’s not an easy question when we think about Joe Biden and what he might do. I’m sure it’s not an easy question domestically for any president to see American soldier potentially prosecuted but then at the same time, as you said, it sets a terrible example. I’m also worried that it makes the US look like hypocrites. If Joe Biden wants to lead by example, as he has said, and he wants to, again, make the US stand up for human rights and the fight against atrocities and war crimes, could he really take and continue this stance Trump has adopted. ”It’s important to investigate war crimes, just not if we were the ones committing them.” That’s really saying that we are somehow above the law and I don’t know how the US can be a member of the international community if they set themselves above the law that way.


Creutz: [00:27:17]: This is of course a matter of sovereignty for the United States, but the problem is, at the lawyers also point it out, that the United States could investigate these soldiers itself and not make it an issue with the ICC. So the ICC operates based on complementarity so the first option is always for states themselves to look, explore and investigate. In this sense, the United States could do investigations themselves and it wouldn’t be a matter for the ICC then.


Annala: [00:27:52]: Would Biden still have this option? If he wanted for the US to investigate so it wouldn’t be an ICC issue anymore, would it still be on the table or is it now that the investigation has started, it’s too late for him to do it?


Creutz: [00:28:08]: Well the investigations were just launched so it takes years. Every trial and investigation in the ICC takes many years so it would definitely be an option to do something on your own and show the commitment to the fight against impunity. It’s clear that Biden would probably not take the United States much closer to the court but I’m hoping that he could at least remove the hostile acts that Trump has taken now.


Annala: [00:28:40]: I think we’re running out of time but to finish this off, could you describe one nightmare scenario and one optimistic about what these elections might mean to the US’s role in international cooperation?


Creutz: [00:28:55]: Well I think that we can’t really affect the outcome of the elections so for me, it’s not about the end result but more about what we, the rest of the world, can do. So the worst case scenario would be that the community of states cannot work together and take responsibility for global problems, that there would be fragmentation, conflict and competition, and not even a minimal amount of cooperation. This is because we have so many global problems to address, we have climate change, refugees, economic decline, the pandemic, and so forth, so the worst is really that we can’t pull it together irrespective of what happens in the US. The best case scenario would of course then be that we can come together and solve issues, at least start to solve them, and that we could find partners who see eye-to-eye on the liberal values and the interests we have and the European Union shares.


Annala: [00:30:08]: Thank you. Thanks so much for being here.


Creutz: [00:30:09]: Thank you.


Annala: [00:30:11]: Thanks for listening. Please tune in next week for our next episode, we’ll be talking about the elections of course, and how it all turned out. Our guests will be leading research fellow Charly Salonius-Pasternak and research fellow Ville Sinkkonen from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.


[recording ends]