Foreign Policy

Trump's Springtime for Despots

The U.S. has often cut deals with unsavory sorts. But why is this president so giddy about it?

Strong men.

Photographer: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

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 on Monday that he would be "honored" to meet with North Korea's Kim Jong Un under the right circumstances. Last week, 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 this 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. The vote was widely criticized by human rights groups and outside observers as a further nail in the coffin of Turkish democracy. Not Trump. He called Erdogan after the vote to congratulate him on the victory.

From Russia's Vladimir Putin to Egypt's General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Trump has gone out of his way to butter up foreign leaders who have trampled over the rights of their citizens. One gets the sense that if Trump was alive during the era of Mongol conquests he would probably proclaim Genghis Khan was "one smart cookie with a big heart."

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, regardless of how it coheres with his administration's foreign policy. We saw this previously when it came to Russia's political influence operation last year. Trump this weekend 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 Tuesday. Anton added that Trump does raise human rights concerns privately with world leaders. He pointed to Egypt's decision to release six humanitarian workers, including one U.S. citizen, from an Egyptian prison as an example of how Trump's private diplomacy with Sisi got results.

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. On Friday Venezuela announced it would no longer be participating in the Organization of American States after the U.S. pressed that body to condemn their government's recent repression of peaceful protests.

White House officials also tell me Trump has asked his national security cabinet to focus on human rights in its policy review on Cuba. Finally, Trump should get some credit for doing something his predecessor never did -- attacking the Syrian regime. He ordered the strikes on a Syrian air base after the U.S. intelligence community concluded the regime had used sarin gas in an attack on a rebel-controlled area, violating Syria's own 2013 agreement with Russia and the U.S. to give up its chemical weapons. 

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. Remember that President Barack Obama was critical of Sisi's military coup in 2012, but he never cut off military aid to Egypt afterward. Madeleine Albright, who served as Bill Clinton's secretary of state, handed Kim's father a basketball signed by Michael Jordan in her visit to North Korea in 2000.

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. Clinton wanted North Korea to agree to a deal to abandon its long-range missile program. 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.

Bolstering Naftali's argument is that Duterte's first response to Trump's invitation was to say he was probably too busy to visit the White House. Usually invitations to a head of state are better choreographed.

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.

A similar argument can be made for China and Turkey. If Turkey can be enticed to play a more constructive role in Syria's civil war, if China can be persuaded to pressure North Korea on its nuclear program, then why muddy the diplomacy with boilerplate about political prisoners?

There is, though, another way. Here it's instructive to go back the Philippines. In 1986, another Republican president, Ronald Reagan, faced another Filipino strongman in 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 and that his military was defecting to his opposition, 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. And yet the U.S. was rewarded for Reagan's foresight in 1988, when the elected government granted the U.S. an interim agreement to keep U.S. military bases on the islands. 

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.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

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