Any argument that the U.S. president really cares about human rights or democracy in foreign policy is undermined by his sweet words for the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi and China’s Xi Jinping.
Are you a foreign despot who has just purged his opposition or authorized a deadly war against your nation’s drug dealers? Normally, you would expect at least a mild rebuke from the leader of the free world. Depending on how egregious your violations, maybe even a tough speech from the Rose Garden or a U.S.-sponsored United Nations resolution.
Not anymore. In the Donald Trump era, it’s springtime for the world’s authoritarians. Or at least that’s how it seems. Consider some of Trump’s recent statements.
He told Bloomberg News last week that he would be “honored” to meet with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. The week before, we were on the brink of war with Kim’s Hermit Kingdom. But now, Trump is holding out the prospect of a deal. All of that is fine, but since when would an American president be honored to meet with a boy-tyrant who presides over a Gulag state?
Then there was Trump’s invitation to Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte last week to visit the White House. He’s the guy who said last summer, “Just because you’re a journalist doesn’t mean you’re exempted from assassination if you’re a son of a bitch.”
Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, last month orchestrated a constitutional referendum that could keep him in power for the next dozen years and further consolidate the powers of the chief executive. Trump called Erdogan to congratulate him on the victory.
From Russia’s Vladimir Putin to Egypt’s General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, Trump has gone out of his way to butter up foreign leaders who have trampled over the rights of their citizens.
It’s clear that much of this is improvisational. After the first 100 days, all of us are getting used to a president who says and tweets whatever is on his mind. We saw this previously when it came to Russia’s political influence operation last year. Trump recently told CBS News that he still wasn’t sure Russia was behind the hacking of leading Democrats (even though he had acknowledged as much before his inauguration).
At the same time, White House officials tell me it would be a mistake to conclude that Trump doesn’t care at all about human rights. “He has a strategy, and his strategy is to develop personal relationships to avoid criticizing publicly people with whom he is trying to build a relationship and with whom he is negotiating,” Michael Anton, the National Security Council spokesman, told me.
White House officials also pointed to Trump’s brief meeting in February with Lilian Tintori, the wife of imprisoned Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. Trump tweeted a photo of himself with Tintori and Vice President Mike Pence from the White House right after the Treasury Department issued an order to freeze the assets of Venezuela’s vice president for drug trafficking.
White House officials also tell me Trump has asked his national security cabinet to focus on human rights in its policy review on Cuba.
All of that is well and good. But any argument that Trump really cares about human rights or democracy in foreign policy is undermined by his sweet words for Duterte, Erdogan, Sisi and China’s leader, Xi Jinping.
Past presidents have also looked the other way at times for authoritarian allies. And often presidents who made support for human rights a rhetorical priority didn’t back up those words when it came to policy.
The difference is that when former presidents cozied up to authoritarians, there was a strategic purpose. Obama needed Egypt to be stable while its neighbor Libya descended into civil war. Franklin D. Roosevelt needed Stalin to defeat Hitler. With Trump, it’s unclear whether his obsequiousness to despots is part of a larger plan or just popping off.
“The challenge is to know if there is a strategy behind these peculiar openings to foreign authoritarians,” Timothy Naftali, a professor of history at New York University and former director of the Nixon Presidential Library, told me. “Donald Trump has so far been incapable of articulating a foreign policy approach, let alone a strategy.”
Naftali held out hope that National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster has a strategy, and that Trump is an imperfect spokesperson for it. “But at the moment there is no reason to believe that he is inviting Duterte to this country, except to annoy political elites,” he said.
That said, it’s also possible that Trump understands that Duterte, who threatened to kick the U.S. military out of his country in October, needs courting. It’s worth remembering that the Obama administration last fall encouraged the Philippines to settle its dispute with China over artificial islands in the South China Sea directly, even after an international tribunal ruled in favor of the Filipinos. If Duterte concludes his government is too toxic for the West, it will drive him into China’s arms.
Here it’s instructive to go back to the Philippines. In 1986, another Republican president, Ronald Reagan, faced another Filipino strongman — Ferdinand Marcos. The two had developed a close relationship going back to when Reagan was governor of California. But after it became clear that Marcos had engaged in widespread election fraud in the 1986 election, Reagan insisted his old friend step down.
Reagan did this in the twilight of the Cold War, when the Soviets and the Americans fought all over the world for influence in weaker countries. There was a strong argument that national interests should prevail over human rights in the Philippines in 1986, too.
Trump could learn a lot from Reagan when it comes to his new authoritarian friends. Statecraft often demands leaders choose between interests and values. But America is an exceptional nation. Sometimes its interests are best served by advancing the principles of its founders.