President Donald Trump’s frequent praise for dictators around the world has long suggested that he would be no champion of human rights. Regrettably, it looks as though his disdain for universal freedoms will now become an official tenet of U.S. foreign policy.
In a May 3 address to State Department employees, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that while U.S. foreign policy is guided by fundamental values, too much reliance on human rights principles “really creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests.”
He added that, “In some circumstances, we should and do condition our policy engagements” on human rights, “but that doesn’t mean that’s the case in every situation.”
Hmm. In several long, convoluted sentences, Tillerson turned around the bipartisan principles that have guided U.S. foreign policy since World War II. What most of us heard from his State Department speech was that the United States will from now on defend human rights “in some circumstances.”
Trump had pretty much telegraphed this during the campaign, when he said, “I don’t think we have a right to lecture” other countries on human rights. As president, he has proposed stringent budget cuts to democracy promotion programs, and became the first president in recent memory to boycott the sessions of the highly respected Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Putting human rights on the back burner is one of the most counterproductive things that the Trump administration could do, and reflects Trump and his inner circle’s utter ignorance of history.
Several U.S. presidents in the 19th and early 20th centuries supported pro-American dictators, with disastrous results. Franklin Delano Roosevelt once famously said that Nicaraguan strongman Anastasio Somoza “may be an S.O.B., but he’s our S.O.B.” But that backfired, creating generations of anti-American leaders, Marxist guerrillas and – more recently – Islamic fundamentalist terrorists.
Some Republican foreign policy experts tell me I’m reading too much into Trump and Tillerson’s human rights statements.
Elliott Abrams, a top White House official in the George W. Bush administration and current senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, told me that virtually all recent administrations, especially Republican presidents, at first vowed to place national security over human rights concerns, “but they usually end up realizing how important support for human rights really is. And I think that will happen here, too,” he said.
This is because new U.S. presidents “talk to a lot of people around the world, and realize that one of the reasons for the popularity of the United States is the support for democracy. Abandoning that support is not cost free,” he said.
Citing Trump’s recent meetings with Venezuelan opposition activist Lilian Tintori and Egypt’s recently released American aid worker Aya Hijazi, Abrams added that “I don’t think that Trump is going to end up being indifferent” to their stories.
Asked about Trump’s tacit premise that, in the era of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, U.S. security concerns should overshadow human rights concerns, Abrams said that “Islamic extremism is an idea, and you have to fight it not only with guns, but also with ideas. You cannot defeat it with guns, and the idea that will defeat it is freedom.”
My opinion: I wish I could be as optimistic as Abrams about Trump’s human rights learning curve. Granted, every recent U.S. Republican president started his term as a human rights skeptic and ended up embracing the principle.
U.S. presidents have often sounded hypocritical when defending human rights abroad – given the U.S.’ own frequent transgressions – but upholding fundamental freedoms everywhere more often than not is what has made the United States different from most other countries. Rather than making America great again, Trump’s coddling of dictators will hurt America’s image, and will create bigger national security problems in the future.
Andres Oppenheimer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.