Is US President Donald Trump backsliding on democracy-promotion and propping up dictatorships? Friendship with authoritarian leaders has been a prominent feature of his foreign policy in his first 100 days in office. Much to the chagrin of liberal observers and commentators, he has heaped praise on his peers who are notorious for repressing their own populations and invited them to the White House. Besides hosting Egypt’s military dictator, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, in the Oval Office last month, Mr Trump has lined up an array of controversial rulers like Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte to be his official guests in the coming weeks. These three blood-soaked leaders have won lavish applause from Mr Trump, who loves to contradict and mock mainstream Western lore which deems them as rogues. The unwritten rule in the contrarian Mr Trump’s playbook is that whoever is the whipping boy of the liberal Western establishment must be an asset for the new America, which he is shaping.
Over and above the rhetorical Twitter appreciations and hyperbole, the US President has also sought to strengthen America’s economic and strategic links with illiberal regimes by shedding any compunctions about their domestic governance records. Instead of hectoring and chiding governments that are abusive, he has embraced them with a candour that befits classic realpolitik behaviour at the cost of morals and value judgments. In some instances, like Russian President Vladimir Putin, even if there is no overlap of interests with America, Mr Trump has adopted an ideologically tinted rightist view of admiring and desiring to collaborate with strongmen. To his detractors, Mr Trump loves tyrants because he is himself of that mould and dreams of vast power by bypassing or weakening checks and balances to pursue his core objectives without shackles. Having run into steep resistance from American courts, bureaucracy and legislature to his signature policies like the Muslim visa ban and the repeal of Obamacare, he may be envying Mr Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping and their ilk for unchallenged statures in their respective countries.
The nationalistic, anti-globalist fervour that Mr Trump exudes through his “America first” doctrine creates feelings of kinship with a Duterte or an el-Sisi, who carry the “I care a damn for international opinion” badge loudly to mobilise their conservative constituencies at home. By placing human rights and democracy on the backburner, Mr Trump is aiming at building an alternative coalition of tyrannies which can shift global norms away from liberal ideals and thereby give him more leeway within the US to push through his populist agenda.
Critics have slammed Mr Trump for legitimising foreign autocrats by felicitating and doing business with them. But the obverse also works, wherein Mr Trump’s own mission to downsize the liberal order in America depends on carving out a new international system based on rejection of free trade, open migration, non-discriminatory treatment of citizens and separation of powers.
When Mr Trump resumes military aid to Bahrain and Egypt that his predecessor had restricted, increases coordination with Turkey in spite of the latter’s dubious role in the war in Syria, and offers to strengthen the US’ alliance with the Philippines despite Mr Duterte’s extra judicial killing spree, he is consciously or unwittingly forming a club of what he views as non-nonsense leaders who go about ruthlessly achieving their goals. It is now obvious that there is a choreographed “good cop bad cop” routine in place in the Trump administration. The President himself talks from his heart and revels in the company of dictatorial and violent counterparts, complimenting them for “fantastic” jobs and giving them important economic or military concessions. In order to sugarcoat this open courtship of problematic regimes, his top diplomats, like the secretary of state Rex Tillerson and his ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, project the conventional line of America as a defender of human rights and democracy. Ms Haley has boasted that the US remains the “moral conscience” of the world and Mr Tillerson has vowed to “hold to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world.”
Both these central purveyors of Mr Trump’s foreign policy happily ignore cases where their boss is coddling dictators and focus on those authoritarians who are antagonistic to the US to prove America’s moral credentials. Kim Jong-un of North Korea, the Castros of Cuba, Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela and Bashar al-Assad of Syria directly challenge American interests or do not fit into Mr Trump’s idiosyncratic worldviews and hence do not get the same sympathy from the Trump administration as a Duterte or an el-Sisi. Proponents of Mr Trump argue that, unlike earlier US Presidents, at least he is not a hypocrite and is doing a service by dropping all pretensions of America being a moral policeman of the planet. But the rampant mixed messaging that emanates from him and his aides does contain severe inconsistencies and contradictions on democracy and human rights. On one hand, Mr Trump wants to deter Mr Assad for allegedly gassing babies and compel Mr Maduro to release political prisoners. But on the other hand, he does not mind cooperating with an el-Sisi butchering thousands of Egyptians or an Erdogan jailing hundreds of thousands in mass purges.
In a way, much has changed under Mr Trump, especially his unapologetic willingness to sup with the proverbial devils. But in a broader comparative sense, very little has changed. The same double standards that motivated both Democratic and Republican Presidents during the Cold War and after it are still around. Tyrants like the Khalifa dynasty of Bahrain are good dictators for Mr Trump because they serve American interests, while Mr Assad deserves to be overthrown because he is part of Iran’s sphere of influence that resists the US. China’s most despotic leader since Mao Zedong, Xi Jinping, is to Mr Trump “a very good person” because Mr Xi might help the US to pressurise North Korea and also due to the “great chemistry” Mr Trump has developed with him on a personal level. But whenever it is expedient or jarring to Mr Trump’s ideology, he selectively attacks certain authoritarian regimes. Analysts have been scratching their heads about Mr Trump’s whimsical foreign policy flip-flops. Understandably so. But there is one constant, be it Mr Trump or any of his predecessors. America is not and has never been a true, universal champion of democracy and human rights. Those who treat it as a beacon for advancing a more moral world order and rue how Mr Trump has ruined all, live in an illusory and historically misguided bubble. Mr Trump is a continuation of America’s long, deceptive record as an opportunistic power....