It’s been obvious for some time now that the promotion of human rights and democracy would not be a priority for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his boss, Donald Trump. Tillerson clashed during his confirmation hearing with Sen. Marco Rubio over his refusal to criticize the governments of Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the Philippines for human rights abuses and after taking office. The Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts would gut democracy promotion programs. Mother Jones reported this week that a National Security Council position once known as the “special assistant to the president for multilateral affairs and human rights” has been renamed the “special assistant for international organizations and alliances.”
The administration has resumed arms sales to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia that were on hold under the Obama administration due to human rights concerns. Trump has gone out of his way to praise dictators like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as strong and effective leaders. He called to congratulate Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for his victory in a referendum that was widely viewed as a dictatorial power grab and was accompanied by thousands of arrests of government opponents on dubious charges. He’s invited Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, complicit in thousands of extrajudicial killings, to the White House.
In a speech to State Department employees Wednesday, Tillerson more or less made the administration’s position official, the AP reports:
“In some circumstances, if you condition our national security efforts on someone adopting our values, we probably can’t achieve our national security goals,” Tillerson said. “It really creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests.”
Still, he insisted the U.S. won’t abandon core values. In some instances, Tillerson said, the U.S. should and will require other nations to adopt “certain actions as to how they treat people” if they want to cooperate with the U.S. In other instances, he said the U.S. would continue advocating for its values without using them as leverage
If Tillerson isn’t going to raise the topic of human rights in conversations with foreign governments, wants to eliminate the offices devoted to human rights, and can’t even be bothered to attend the release of the department’s annual human rights report, it prompts the question of when or where exactly this advocacy for our core values is going to take place.
Trump officials have an irritating habit of talking as if they’re the first administration willing to work with bad guys in the name of national security. (Jared Kushner ought to ask his beloved mentor Henry Kissinger about that.) Yes, the Obama administration sometimes pressured allies on human rights issues more than those allies preferred. But Obama also made his willingness to meet with hostile dictators a central issue in his 2008 campaign. The signature foreign policy initiatives of his presidency were the “reset” with Russia, the Iran nuclear deal, and the normalization of diplomatic relations with Cuba. None of those is a country with a particularly sterling human rights record.
There’s also a case to be made for talking about human rights, even if you don’t care at all about human rights. As Isaac Stone Fish argued in Slate ahead of Trump’s meeting with Xi, the Chinese government—like many governments—cares about its self-image and bristles at high-profile international criticism. Why shouldn’t human rights be used as leverage? Or at the very least, why say in advance that you will not use it? As the president is fond of pointing out, it’s not a particularly smart negotiating tactic to tell the other side in advance that certain issues are off the table.
Some might argue that U.S. human rights advocacy is simply hypocritical, given the long, checkered history of American foreign policy, from the carpet bombing of the Vietnam War to the coup that installed Augusto Pinochet to the scenes of torture at Abu Ghraib, not to mention a shameful legacy of racism and discrimination at home. The president seems to hold his view, telling Bill O’Reilly in February in defense of his praise of Putin, “There are a lot of killers. You think our country's so innocent?"
As Tom Malinowski, the former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, recently wrote for the Atlantic, no one would argue that the U.S. has a perfect record, but “these wrongs provoked debate in part because they so clearly contradicted American ideals, and because Americans took their self-image seriously.”
And while the record of success for U.S. democracy promotion may be mixed, it can bear fruit. Look at the role sanctions and South Africa’s international isolation played in ending apartheid. One reason that military coups are far less frequent than they were during the Cold War—and that when they do happen, they tend to be followed quickly by new elections—is that the U.S. and Soviet Union are no longer willing to back any friendly strongman that takes power.
The Trump view of human rights abuses also goes beyond simple disregard. Trump, who argued during his campaign that the U.S. should kill the families of terrorists and has said of using torture “even if it doesn't work they deserve it,” often seems to admire the tactics used by dictators.
The administration may, dubiously, justify its outreach to Duterte as necessary for its North Korea policy, but the White House readout of the call also noted, without commentary, that the two presidents had “discussed the fact that the Philippine government is fighting very hard to rid its country of drugs, a scourge that affects many countries throughout the world.” Duterte encouraged the killing of hundreds of people by police and vigilantes in the name of fighting drugs and is accused of having ordered killings from a private death squad when he was a mayor. The White House doesn’t note that Trump had any concerns about this. In fact it’s encouraging those actions, describing Duterte’s efforts as part of a global fight that the U.S. is also involved with.
Similarly, before Trump had an abrupt change of heart about Bashar al-Assad, he described the president as a “natural ally” in the fight against ISIS and endorsed the idea of Assad staying in power, which the Syrian government could only have interpreted as a green light to continue deliberately targeting civilians in the name of fighting “terrorism.”
It’s one thing to simply ignore human rights abuses, as Tillerson suggests. It’s yet another to actively encourage them.