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

You can tell a lot about a man by the company he keeps. Donald Trump’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.

{mosads}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 Obama 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 Tillerson’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 Haley, 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 McCain, Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham 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.”

Tags Barack Obama Diplomacy Donald Trump Donald Trump Foreign policy Human rights international affairs John McCain Lindsey Graham Marco Rubio Nikki Haley Politics Rex Tillerson United States Vladmir Putin

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