Cozying up to strongmen is not in America's diplomatic interests

Cozying up to strongmen is not in America's diplomatic interests
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You can tell a lot about a man by the company he keeps. Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpShocking summit with Putin caps off Trump’s turbulent Europe trip GOP lambasts Trump over performance in Helsinki Trump stuns the world at Putin summit MORE’s strange affinity for strongmen reveals an authoritarian temperament impatient with democratic niceties. It may also explain why the president has abandoned our nation’s long, bipartisan tradition of promoting democracy and human rights. Fortunately, for the cause of global freedom, the president’s orientation is deeply un-American and thus unsustainable.

The idea that America should encourage the spread of liberty is as old as the republic. The United States was the first modern nation founded on the principle of popular sovereignty, or the conviction that the people themselves, rather than some monarch, should rule. To be sure, the nation’s founding generation struggled to translate these noble aspirations into practice. The Constitution initially restricted the blessings of liberty to property-owning white males.

Those without land, as well as women, Native Americans, and enslaved Africans and their descendants, would gain their full “inalienable” rights only slowly during the 19th and 20th centuries. Still, from the Declaration of Independence onward, American leaders portrayed the United States as a new form of political community dedicated to liberty and predestined to transform the globe. “We have it in our power,” Thomas Paine declared in 1776, “to begin the world anew.”

If Americans have long embraced a mission to advance human freedom, they have frequently disagreed about how best to fulfill this destiny. In practice, as Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Walter McDougall explains in “Promised Land, Crusader State,” the United States has oscillated between serving as a beacon to inspire peoples struggling for emancipation and donning the messianic mantle of a redeemer nation.

Nevertheless, most U.S. presidents over the last century have shared two convictions. The first is that democracy is the best way to organize a polity. The second is that promoting democracy and human rights globally reflects American values and supports U.S. interests. From Woodrow Wilson’s campaign to “make the world safe for democracy” to Ronald Reagan’s demand that Mikhail Gorbachev “tear down this wall,” both Democratic and Republican presidents have made the expansion of human freedom a pillar of U.S. foreign policy.

Whatever their other differences, Trump’s immediate predecessors agreed on this. The United States stood for the “non-negotiable demands of human dignity,” George W. Bush declared in 2002. “We support a set of universal rights,” Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaWhy did it take so long for Trump to drain the swamp of Pruitt? President Trump is tougher on Russia in 18 months than Obama in eight years Obama in Kenya for launch of sister’s sports center MORE added in 2011. While their policies sometimes fell short of, or undercut, such aspirations, both men were rhetorically committed to the cause of freedom.

This historical legacy makes Trump’s conduct stunning. Certainly, other U.S. presidents have privileged geopolitics over human rights and cut deals with devils, ranging from the Shah to Mobutu to Pinochet. But no other modern occupant of the White House has so brazenly embraced foreign strongmen or so baldly jettisoned any pretense of promoting liberty.

Trump’s cynicism is clearest is his steadfast embrace of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. “What, you think our own country’s so innocent?” he infamously asked Bill O’Reilly, who had called Putin “a killer.” Beyond this obscene moral equivalence, the combative commander in chief, who often seems to relish being on the offensive, has oddly resisted condemning the Kremlin’s escalating crackdown on domestic dissent, including from independent media and civil society organizations.

Other examples in Trump’s short tenure are legion. He has praised Rodrigo Duterte, the Filipino leader and self-proclaimed murderer, for doing an “unbelievable job” in a drug war involving several thousand extrajudicial killings. He has lauded the “tremendous job” of Abdel Fattah El Sisi, the Egyptian dictator who has jailed thousands of opponents. He has commended Turkish democrat-turned-dictator Recip Tayyip Erdogan for his success in ruthlessly consolidating power.

For his first foreign trip, Trump visited Saudi Arabia, making nary a mention of human rights violations in that repressive nation. In Europe, meanwhile, the president has stoked the flames of nationalism, lavishing praise on Poland’s right-wing government and expressing support for National Front leader Marine Le Pen ahead of France’s presidential elections this spring.

Unsurprisingly, Trump’s instincts have infused American diplomacy. The most abject moment in Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonUS steps up its game in Africa, a continent open for business Matt Drudge shares mock ‘Survivor’ cover suggesting more White House officials will leave this summer 'Daily Show' trolls Trump over Pruitt's resignation MORE’s disappointing tenure as secretary of State came on May 3, when he delivered a speech that all but abandoned human rights as a core objective of U.S. diplomacy. Too often, he explained, the pursuit of values “creates obstacles” to realizing American interests. Breaking with precedent, Tillerson did not participate in the rollout of the department’s annual human rights report. Indeed, among senior administration officials, only Nikki HaleyNimrata (Nikki) HaleyWatchdog: First lady spokeswoman may have violated Hatch Act with ‘MAGA’ tweet Ryan: 'The president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally' Guatemala asks President Trump to weaken anti-corruption commission MORE, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, remains an outspoken champion of human rights.

On one level, skepticism about promoting democracy and human rights is understandable. Neoconservative excesses during the George W. Bush years gave the “freedom agenda” a bad name. The subsequent collapse of the “Arab spring” during the Obama presidency revealed the limits of U.S. influence. The lesson of these experiences is that American support for democracy and human rights requires modesty, patience, and a tolerance for reversals.

Still, the suggestion that the United States should abandon its role as the world’s leading champion of human freedom is appalling and, frankly, un-American. It implies renouncing U.S. soft power, notably the nation’s reputation for standing for more than its own naked self-interest.

Fortunately, American exceptionalism remains deeply ingrained in the national psyche. An overwhelming percentage of Americans, according to a January poll by the Program for Public Consultation, agrees that the United States should “look beyond its own interests and do what’s best for the world as a whole.”

In Congress, meanwhile, influential Republicans like John McCainJohn Sidney McCainGOP lambasts Trump over performance in Helsinki Trump stuns the world at Putin summit NY Daily News cover following Helsinki summit shows Trump shooting Uncle Sam MORE, Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioRubio: Trump's remarks on Russian election meddling 'not accurate' The Hill's Morning Report — Trump, Putin meet under cloud of Mueller’s Russia indictments Scottish beer company offering ‘tiny cans’ for Trump’s ‘tiny hands’ MORE and Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamTrump stuns the world at Putin summit Overnight Defense: Washington reeling from Trump, Putin press conference Ryan: 'The president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally' MORE are determined to restore American leadership on human rights. We must all hope that the president does not so damage democracy at home that the country loses all credibility to promote it abroad.

Stewart Patrick is the James Binger senior fellow in global governance at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “The Sovereignty Wars: Reconciling America with the World.”