One of the more predictable diplomatic rituals since 9/11 has been that when terrorists strike a close American ally, Washington stands in solidarity with that country, offering public and private support. In fact, much of the political momentum behind the development of today’s multilateral framework for countering terrorism and violent extremism was generated by this, “we are in this together,” post-attack solidarity.
This tradition started on September 12, 2001, with NATO invoking Article 5 for the first time in its history. It continued, less than three weeks later, when U.N. Security Council members followed Washington’s lead and adopted perhaps the most far-reaching, legally intrusive resolution in the Council’s history: Resolution 1373, which obligated all countries to take a series legislative and other counterterrorism measures. The 2004 Madrid bombings led to the establishment of the U.N. Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate. The London attacks the following year led the Security Council to adopt a first-ever resolution on the issue of incitement to terrorism. And, the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris prompted the United States to convene a White House global summit on violent extremism, with dozens of countries signing onto a far-reaching political declaration replete with non-binding commitments to do more to counter violent extremism.
These and so many other multilateral counterterrorism developments were made possible, in large part, because countries wanted to stand together in the face of horrific violence against a close ally, and this trumped any differences on the substance of what was being proposed. But, this tradition may have come to an abrupt end earlier this week when the White House, citing vague First Amendment concerns, refused to join 18 governments and eight technology companies in signing the non-binding Christchurch Call, with its particular focus on countering terrorist and violent extremist content on-line.
Washington’s refusal to sign a document spearheaded by New Zealand, one of its “Five Eyes” partners, and France, America’s oldest ally, is head scratching, particularly because the document merely asks governments to “[c]onsider appropriate action to prevent the use of online services to disseminate terrorist and violent extremist content, including through collaborative actions…” (emphasis added).
Based on the short White House statement, it appears that the Trump administration’s unwillingness is underpinned by concerns about the declaration potentially impinging on the freedom of speech and expression.
However, neither the nature (a non-binding political declaration) nor content (committing to “consider appropriate action” and protecting “principles of a free, open and secure internet, without compromising human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression”) would seem, on its face, to risk First Amendment legal protections in the U.S. Put simply, signing the document would not have triggered any action by the U.S.
In addition, and as mentioned above, in 2005, under a Republican president, the U.S. voted in favor of a Security Council resolution that for the first time called on states to crack down on incitement to terrorism. British Prime Minister Tony Blair had initially insisted on a U.N. Charter, Chapter VII resolution that would have legally required all countries to act, but settled for a softer version in order to accommodate Washington’s legitimate First Amendment concerns.
Whereas resolutions adopted by the Security Council could, in theory, run afoul of the First Amendment, it is hard to imagine how a political declaration of the kind adopted in Paris this week — particularly one full of references about the need to protect human rights — could. It is equally difficult to imagine U.S. State Department lawyers (of which I was once one), assuming they had the opportunity to review the draft language in Paris, would either have had concerns with the text or couldn’t have come up with tweaks to address them, especially if there was a strong signal from the White House that it wanted to join.
Thus, the refusal to sign on to the Christchurch Call, a declaration inspired after the horrific right-wing terrorist attack in New Zealand in March, leaves one wondering whether part of the reluctance was linked to the nature of the attack. After all, the First Amendment doesn’t seem to be much of a concern when President Donald Trump is discussing ISIS. He has at times suggested that he would “strongly consider” closing mosques in the United States to help prevent terrorism and ban nearly all foreign Muslims from entering the country. He has even “called for shutting down parts of the Internet used by terrorists for recruitment, and [has] said has that First Amendment protection should not extend to those who publish directions for building a bomb.”
Contrast this with Trump’s defense of the neo-Nazi protesters in Charlottesville, Va., or his outrage when certain “conservative thinkers” were banned from Twitter and Facebook.
There may be more to the White House’s reluctance to join the Christchurch Call than what is in the short statement it released this week. But based on what has been made public, one is left with the impression that the American leadership that exists when it comes to defeating ISIS and other Islamist-terrorist groups, and Jihadi ideology more broadly, is sorely lacking when it comes to right-wing violent extremist groups. If true, this doesn’t bode well for those interested in seeing more international action, including through multilateral fora, to prevent and counter this latter category of terrorism and extremist violence, which is increasingly recognized as a growing global concern, albeit not by the current White House.
Perhaps equally worrisome is the effect that the White House’s unwillingness to sign onto the Christchurch declaration will have on the enthusiasm of U.S. allies to answer the call to action against terrorism when Washington is on the other end of the line.