Autocratic leaders who may have had strained relationships with past US presidential administrations due to
dubious human-rights records appear to have a new ally in the White House.
President Donald Trump’s willingness to engage with some of the world’s most notorious strongmen was on full display last weekend, when he extended White House invitations to Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte and Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha. Both the Philippines and Thailand enjoy treaties with the US, but their leaders’ brutal crackdowns on drugs and dissent have marred their relationships with the West.
Then on Monday, Trump said he would be “honored” to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un over his country’s nuclear weapons program, provided certain conditions were first met.
The overtures prompted outrage among human-rights experts and some Democratic lawmakers. Duterte’s merciless anti-drug campaign has left more than 7,000 people dead since he took office in late June 2016, according to the Filipino news site Rappler. Nearly 3,000 have died at the hands of police.
North Korea’s Kim, meanwhile, operates secretive prison camps where suspected dissidents are tortured, starved, and forced into hard labour. There is no free speech or religious liberty in North Korea, which has repeatedly threatened to attack its neighbours — and, ultimately, the US — with nuclear weapons.
“We are watching in real time as the American human rights bully pulpit disintegrates into ash,” Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy tweeted Sunday.
The White House has defended the invitation to Duterte — who called President Barack Obama an “idiot” and “son of a whore” after his administration raised concerns about the country’s drug war and extra-judicial killings — as simply a “meeting,” not a “thank you.” An administration official told Reuters that it was aimed at preventing the Philippines from pivoting completely away from the US, which could “intensify” Duterte’s “bad behaviour.”
But the outreach to Duterte and Chan-ocha — the Thai prime minister who heads a military junta and seized power in a coup in 2014 — was not the first time Trump has displayed an unforced affinity for, and even attempted to legitimise, leaders with authoritarian reputations.
Throughout his presidential campaign, Trump praised Russian President Vladimir Putin as a strong leader and called it a “great honour to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond.” Trump has twice defended Putin against accusations that he murders journalists and dissidents, saying in September that he hadn’t seen “any evidence that [Putin] killed anybody” and telling Bill O’Reilly in February that in the US, “we kill people, too.”
When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won a referendum last month allowing him to vastly expand his presidential authorities and consolidate power, Trump called to congratulate him on his victory. The White House readout of the call did not mention Erdogan’s crackdown on dissent, which has only intensified since a failed coup threatened his grip on power last summer.
In early April, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was received at the White House for the first time since he seized power in a coup nearly four years ago. Trump praised the Egyptian strongman, saying they agreed “on so many things” and that el-Sisi had done a “fantastic job in a very difficult situation.” El-Sisi orchestrated the removal of the democratically elected Mohamed Morsi in July 2013.
Trump has also developed a “very good relationship” with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has intensified China’s longtime policy of censorship and intolerance of dissent (which has included the periodic abduction of government critics), according to Human Rights Watch. Trump has said he and Xi have “great chemistry,” an abrupt turn after he frequently lambasted China along the campaign trail.
Trump’s behaviour in the foreign policy arena, experts say, is either an indication of how he views strength and good governance, or a signal of his broader understanding that the US-led global order — and its commitment to liberal democratic values — is eroding.
‘There’s certainly a tradition of collaborating with unsavoury dictators’
The US has a long history of cooperating with authoritarian or dictatorial regimes in the name of furthering US national security interests.
The George W. Bush and Obama administrations continued supporting Hosni Mubarak, for example, even as they criticised the rights abuses that ultimately brought him down in 2011. And critics say Obama prioritised America’s strategic partnership with Turkey, a key NATO ally, while not doing enough to punish Erdogan for his rights abuses.
Both Bush and Obama, moreover, maintained the US’ support for Saudi Arabia, which human-rights organisations have judged as among the most repressive countries in the world.
“There is certainly a tradition in America’s foreign policy history of collaborating with unsavoury dictators in the name of pursuing our own security interests,” said William Inboden, a professor of public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin who served as the senior director for strategic planning on the National Security Council under George W. Bush.
The difference, however, is that previous presidents tended to caveat these partnerships with either a public or private warning about the need to uphold human rights and the rule of law.
“Just about every administration since Franklin Roosevelt has had to cooperate with dictators, to some extent, in the name of US strategic interests,” Inboden said, pointing to Roosevelt’s alignment with Joseph Stalin during World War II to counter Nazi Germany. “But the US also has a consistent record of pushing these countries quietly, and sometimes publicly, to democratize and respect human rights.”
Obama was slow to hold Erdogan accountable, but he refused to invite Erdogan to the Oval Office last April and expressed his concerns about the Turkish leader’s “repression” on the sidelines of last year’s Nuclear Security Summit in Washington. He was also a frequent critic of the
Saudis’ human rights abuses, and called on them to “share the neighbourhood” with Iran after the US-led nuclear deal was signed.
Ned Price, the senior director of the National Security Council under Obama, said “engagement with adversaries absolutely has the potential to strengthen our national security and provide new opportunities to the American people.”
“The Iran deal and new approach to Cuba are prime examples,” Price said. “But this brand of principled engagement — predicated on years of preparation and ground work and always guided by our interests and values — is a far cry from what we’ve seen from this administration.”
The White House has yet to release a statement condemning the human rights abuses of authoritarian leaders that Trump has spoken to or met with since taking office, even as the State Department has issued more nuanced reactions. In contrast to previous presidents, moreover, Trump himself has not reiterated the US’s commitment to human rights and democracy in his joint press conferences with Egypt’s el-Sisi, Price said.
“In offering some of his highest pride to some of the world’s most brutal leaders, President Trump and his administration have left our values by the wayside, in some cases going out of their way to make clear they will not raise human rights and other previously indispensable elements in public,” Price said. “That is not only a break from past Republican and Democratic administrations, it’s also an affront to America’s traditional role in the world.”
‘We need friends, and we need allies’
US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said shortly after Trump met with el-Sisi that the administration is “going to play with whoever we need to play with” in order to further its counterterrorism goals. She said Trump “didn’t say [el-Sisi] was ‘fantastic’ with human rights.”
White House press secretary Sean Spicer reiterated that point Monday, telling reporters that Trump believes it is more effective to “build relationships” with these leaders privately than to chastise their human-rights practices in public statements.
Former US ambassador Jim Jeffrey, who served as assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser under George W. Bush, said Trump may be on to something.
“Trump finds himself willy-nilly committed to the global security order,” said Jeffrey, who previously served as deputy assistant secretary for the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. “That requires working both with important allies and with difficult foes such as China and Russia.”
To some extent, Jeffrey argued, it also requires the “ability to filter unpleasant realities” — like the fact that the US’ ability to influence other leaders’ governing styles “has always been vastly overrated.”
“Trump doesn’t seem overly concerned with the core of liberal democratic thinking,” Jeffrey said.
And that may ultimately be to his advantage.
Jeffrey, a 35-year diplomatic and foreign policy veteran, noted that the “arc of history” seemed to be steadily turning away from liberal democracy and toward nationalism — even as Obama made a point of criticising leaders like Erdogan and Putin, who have been reelected several times and enjoy high levels of domestic support despite their shaky commitment to human rights.
“When the arc of history was turning towards liberal democracy, American foreign policy could consist largely of beating up on people who weren’t getting on the ‘arc of history’ train,” Jeffrey said. “But it’s obvious that this arc has broken down — there’s been a turn away from liberal democracy and toward nationalism everywhere from the United States and Britain to France, Poland, and Romania.”
Jeffrey said that the global order is more stable when it is comprised of states who respect both their citizens and each other. But he said that now, amid the erosion of the US-led global order, “we need friends, and we need allies.”
‘Birds of a feather flock together’
Inboden, the University of Texas professor who served under Bush, said that approach seems “very strategically short-sighted.” Others don’t think there’s a strategy behind it at all.
Derek Chollet served as the principal deputy director Secretary of State Hillary Clinton‘s policy planning staff and, later, as the special assistant to Obama and senior director for strategic planning at the National Security Council. He said Trump may simply be “intuitively” attracted to the authoritarian leadership style.
“Birds of a feather flock together,” Chollet said, adding that Trump — “more than any president in modern history, or ever” — has expressed authoritarian tendencies and beliefs.
“Whether it’s the way he speaks about his enemies, the free press, or democratic constraints, his intuition tends to be authoritarian,” Chollet added.
“It’s not a strategy, per se. It probably just feels natural for him.”
Trump has called the press “the enemy of the American people” and lamented the ability of federal judges to block his immigration orders. He also questioned the judgment of the US intelligence community when it unanimously concluded that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election to boost his candidacy and undermine Hillary Clinton.
Chollet acknowledged that the US’ commitment to human rights is often in conflict with its need to preserve and foster certain diplomatic relationships, a point Spicer made during his briefing on Monday.
“It’s a very tricky balance,” Chollet said. But it requires “making clear that, even amid these partnerships, we still stand by human rights, are concerned about what is happening inside those countries, and are prepared to opt out of these partnerships if necessary.”
“The Erdogans and el-Sisis of the world will always try to peddle a bogus bargain to the US,” Inboden said. Namely, that the US has no leverage when it comes to condemning human rights abuses because it can’t afford to alienate the leaders of such strategically important countries — no matter how questionable their governing style may be.
“We’ve seen that pattern before,” Inboden said. “But, judging by America’s diplomatic tradition, we can balance those competing interests.”
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