NEW YORK – US President Donald Trump has made his affinity for authoritarian leaders abundantly clear.
When Trump entertained Abdel Fattah el-Sisi at the White House in April, he praised the Egyptian military ruler for doing “a fantastic job.” And after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared a narrow victory in a referendum to approve a significant expansion of the presidency’s powers, Trump called to offer his congratulations.
Trump has also extended an invitation to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who is presiding over a “war on drugs” that has so far resulted in thousands of extrajudicial killings by the police. And he has continued to speak of Chinese President Xi Jinping in glowing terms, ever since the two met in April at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort.
Trump has openly praised these and other strongmen, not least Russian President Vladimir Putin. But praise is not the same thing as policymaking; and, until this month, Trump and his advisers had left us guessing as to whether his enthusiasm for authoritarian leaders would actually lead to a change of course for US foreign policy.
We now have our answer. In a recent speech to his department’s employees, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson clarified the administration’s position on human rights. Since the mid-1970s, US law has required all presidential administrations to promote internationally recognized standards of human rights as a matter of US foreign policy. But in addressing this very issue, Tillerson ignored US law and various international treaties that the United States has adopted.
In describing the Trump administration’s “America first” approach, Tillerson indicated that the US will no longer emphasize human rights when it interacts with other countries on security and economic issues. “If we condition too heavily that others must adopt this value that we’ve come to over a long history of our own,” he said, “it really creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests.”
But US policymakers’ options for dealing with a country where systematic abuses take place are not limited to imposing American values on that country’s government. And, frankly, it’s difficult to see how simply telling Sisi, Erdoğan, or Duterte to adopt American values would do much good. But Tillerson does not seem to recognize that those countries, too, have agreed to abide by internationally accepted values, and to respect human rights.
When Sisi’s forces kill hundreds of peaceful protestors in the streets of Cairo, they are violating values that their own government pledged to respect. The same goes for Erdoğan when his government imprisons more journalists than any other government in the world; and for Duterte, when he encourages his police forces and other “vigilantes” to carry out death-squad-style killings.
Another fallacy in Tillerson’s State Department remarks is the suggestion that human-rights promotion conflicts with US national-security and economic interests. What Tillerson misses is that praising the likes of Sisi, Erdoğan, and Duterte without also mentioning their human-rights abuses is not the same thing as adopting a neutral stance. Rather, it signals to all of those suffering under authoritarian governments that the US condones those governments’ repressive practices – a position that could damage US national-security and economic interests over the long term, by undermining America’s global respect and prestige.
Of course, when confronting particularly pressing and dangerous foreign-policy challenges, it may be appropriate to set aside human-rights concerns temporarily. For example, if the Trump administration is serious about persuading North Korea to abandon its efforts to develop nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles, then denouncing that regime’s gross abuses is not a strategic priority.
But leaving those abuses unmentioned is a far cry from endorsing or openly condoning Kim Jong-un’s reign of terror. Giving Kim a free pass would never be justified. And yet that is precisely what Trump has been giving other authoritarian leaders. Sadly, as Tillerson has made clear, Trump’s admiration for such leaders will now be an animating force of official policy.
Aryeh Neier, President Emeritus of the Open Society Foundations and a founder of Human Rights Watch, is the author of The International Human Rights Movement: A History.
Copyright: Project Syndicate.