By U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joan E. Kretschmer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

July 2, 2018; Devex

The United States slipped down another rung on the ladder of global leadership last week when its candidate for Director-General of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Ken Isaacs, was rejected by the voting members for his anti-Muslim rhetoric and dismissal of climate change.

Isaacs’ candidacy has been controversial since his nomination in February. Fifty NGOs sent a letter on June 20th that does not mention Isaacs by name but says that the director-general (DG) should have “a deep and authentic commitment to multilateralism” and “a record of and commitment to respecting diversity and condemning xenophobia, discrimination and intolerance.” Isaacs, meanwhile, has frequently tweeted statements belying a belief that Islam is inherently violent, and the Trump administration has drawn back from multilateral commitments such as the Paris climate accords, the Iran nuclear accord, and trade deals.

That the US should nominate such a person to lead an international organization would problematic on its own, but the loss of the IOM’s DG post is historically significant. Since its founding in 1951, all the IOM’s leaders but one has been from the US. The overwhelming lack of support for Isaacs, while understandable given his views, signals a drop in America’s global standing.

Burton Bollag at Devex reports, “Keith Michael Harper, former ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council under the Obama administration, issued a statement calling the election ‘yet another sign that US power, authority, and prestige has been so dramatically diminished. IOM director is seen as an ‘American seat’ and Trump was unable to place an American in it.’” Instead, António Vitorino of Portugal will lead the organization.

There’s a solid argument to be made that seats on global commissions with a great deal of power, such as the IOM, should not be seen as anybody’s seat, or that another country that participates more fully in the global flow of refugees should have the leadership position. Like many levers of power, this one is pulled by money: The US funds about a third of the IOM’s budget. But international opprobrium at the Trump administration’s racist language and abusive immigration practices, as Human Rights Watch’s executive director of its US program put it, have outweighed even that substantial consideration.

As the undercurrents of racism and “othering” that have directed US policy for decades become just plain currents in the national conversation, the global leadership position the US has held since the post-World War era seems increasingly in question. The consequences of this dynamic reverberate in the work of philanthropy and human rights, where foundations and organizations like USAID or Catholic Charities remain some of the largest and most prominent actors.

The US continues to outspend every other country in foreign aid, though not when considered as a percentage of gross national income. That spending gives it a platform to decry human rights abuses and give its charities access and security in some of the world’s more tumultuous places, but this administration’s blatant hypocrisy on issues of human rights puts a significant dent in that platform while exposing some of the weaknesses of the civic sector.

Geoff Mulgan, then-director of the Young Foundation, wrote in 2008, “The United States has led the world in social improvement and innovation…It remains in a league of its own as a giver. But over the past few years, the country’s insularity and parochialism, which have sometimes infiltrated the higher reaches of government, have also sometimes extended into civil society and philanthropy.”

What Mulgan describes as American unwillingness to work within networks, connect social entrepreneurship to public policy, and look outward for ideas is connected to the rise of networked social movements and philanthropy’s increased focus on sustainable investment in more radically thinking, thoroughly networked social justice organizations.

More traditional leadership positions like the seat at the head of IOM may slip from US control in the next few years, and if historically underrepresented countries rise to fill the void, that may even be a good thing. But if the civic sector is to continue its work in global human rights, medical aid, and other areas where it expects to lead, the lessons from those social movements will be critical to its evolution.—Erin Rubin