Will there be a Trump human rights policy, or a blunt realpolitik approach that places human rights and democracy at—or outside—the margins of American foreign policy?
President Trump’s warm conversation in late April with Rodrigo Duterte, and his invitation to the Philippines president to visit the White House, have rightly aroused controversy and suggested that human rights policy may simply disappear. And his recent speech in Saudi Arabia, in which he promised an audience of mostly autocratic Arab leaders that “America will not seek to impose our way of life on others,” has further suggested that Trump is downgrading concern for human rights in favor of a narrower conception of U.S. interests.
The Duterte case is actually a classic example of the struggle over human rights policy, and the president’s defenders argue a straightforward “realpolitik” case. The New York Times reported on the matter on April 30, citing officials who explained that Trump had been reaching out to Southeast Asian leaders because they were feeling left out of the region’s big-power games. “Administration officials said Mr. Trump wanted to mend the alliance with the Philippines as a bulwark against China’s expansionism in the South China Sea,” the Times reported, noting that Duterte had cozied up to Beijing as the United States stepped up its criticism of his war on drugs.
These are serious arguments. There is a great power competition between the United States and China, and keeping the Philippines on our side or at least away from the Chinese side is a worthwhile goal.
The problem, of course, is that Duterte is a serial abuser of human rights. Amnesty International’s report said his election had set off “a wave of unlawful killings across the country, many of which may have amounted to extrajudicial executions.” Freedom House, which used to call the Philippines “free,” now rates it as “partly free,” due in part to Duterte’s drug war “as well as assassinations and threats against civil society activists.” So when the transcript of Trump’s phone call with Duterte was made public on Tuesday—Trump opened the conversation by congratulating his Filipino counterpart for doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem”—human rights activists expressed dismay. Duterte was freely elected, but he is now said to be contemplating imposing martial law on the entire country—another dangerous sign for the Philippines’ democratic future.
The possible upside of the president’s move toward Duterte is also clear—and it could work. That is, it’s possible that by speaking with Duterte, inviting him to Washington, and attending next November’s ASEAN summit in the Philippines, Trump could affect his policies. Ely Ratner, an Obama administration official who was a top aide to Vice President Joe Biden, recently argued that “it’s not at all clear that a U.S. policy predicated only on pressure and punishment will solve the problem,” adding that “further deterioration of the U.S.-Philippines relationship will not only undermine America’s position in Southeast Asia, it would likely usher in a China-led sub-region void of institutions and incentives to advance U.S. values.”
What’s the downside of inviting Duterte, and others like him, to the White House? There are many.
First, Duterte may take the hand of friendship and use it to increase his own prestige, but not change policy because of it. If China offers more (or threatens him more), he may turn to China regardless of Trump’s charm campaign. The net effect of the Trump outreach may be zero: Relations between heads of government matter but political leaders understand that interests come before handshakes. If Trump gets nothing in return from Duterte, he will appear to have abandoned an American commitment to human rights and the rule of law in the Philippines without any real benefit.
Second, the relationship between the United States and the Philippines is not merely transactional. We have a long history there, since the Spanish-American War of 1898, and there are estimated to be 4 million Filipinos in the United States. Moreover, the United States has been exceptionally popular there. Pew’s 2016 Global Attitudes survey found that Filipinos had a more positive view of the United States than the people of literally any other country in the world: 92 percent favorable, 6 percent unfavorable. Why? The same survey found that 89 percent of Filipinos answered yes when asked, “Does the U.S. government respect the personal freedoms of its people?” But only 54 percent had a positive view of China and 48 percent thought China respects personal freedoms. Filipinos like the United States because it is a land of opportunity they can reach, and because it is a free country.
Since the Second World War, the Philippines has been on our side as part of the American-led free world. Filipinos know that the United States helped support the Marcos dictatorship but also that we helped bring it down. There would likely be a price to pay if they concluded that we are now indifferent to their freedom and willing to watch it circumscribed and even eliminated. Pew surveys show that in all of Europe, the country where the United States is least popular is Greece, at 38 percent. I’d offer a theory as to why: a persistent hangover from American indifference to democracy in Greece decades ago. As two analysts put it in an article entitled “Are the Greeks Anti-American?” in 2007, “It is manifest, and not only to Greek opinion, that the United States acquiesced to, if it did not inspire and actively embrace, the military dictatorship (1967-74) in the name of maintenance of military bases and facilities.”
There is a price to pay for such positions, and embracing Duterte may indeed incur a long-term price—and may not bring long-term benefits, because the Philippines’ constitution limits him to only one term in office and does not permit re-election. Even if overlooking his human rights abuses wins his friendship, he’ll be gone during President Trump’s second term (assuming there is one). If by then his countrymen and women have started rejecting his style of governing and the abuses that accompany it, they may damn not only him but us as well. Ferdinand Marcos ruled for 31 years and since his departure the Philippines has been a democracy. We get some credit for that. We will get some of the blame if that achievement is lost and we have been complicit or indifferent.
The problem with the current U.S. approach is not that the president has winced at such conduct but then invited Duterte, in a traditional display of realpolitik. The problem is that there is no visible wincing.
Dictators don’t last forever, and are always illegitimate: They are imposed and maintained by force. If they could win free elections they would, and then bathe in the glow of new or renewed public acceptance. They don’t allow any challenge to their power because they can’t win on a level playing field. Eventually, they fall. So investing in today’s dictator may reap long-term harm for the United States.
Third, the greatness that President Trump wishes to restore, and that so many Americans hope he can restore, is never amoral. American greatness does not lie in the greatest possible success in wringing advantage from other (sometimes weaker or poorer) countries, but in leading alliances that stand for freedom as well as prosperity. Today, as during the Cold War and before it, those alliances are impure. We allied with Stalin against Hitler, and with many tin-pot dictators during the Cold War. It was FDR who said of Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua that “Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch,” and during the Cold War this view was applied throughout Latin America, Africa and Asia, including the Philippines. President Jimmy Carter is recalled for his commitment to human rights. But he spent the first New Year’s weekend of his presidency in Tehran, where he said this: “Iran, because of the great leadership of the shah, is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world. This is a great tribute to you, your majesty, and to your leadership and to the respect and the admiration and love which your people give to you.” The shah was overthrown just over a year later. Similarly, though four American missionary women and Archbishop Oscar Romero were killed by death squads in El Salvador in 1980, Carter did not cut off U.S. aid to the military junta ruling there before leaving office. Why not? The answer is realpolitik.
But that decision by President Carter did not suggest that he was indifferent to human rights in El Salvador, and of course he was not. He made a judgment, and such difficult judgments balancing ideals and interests are inescapable for any president. The U.S. government is not an NGO.
But successful balancing requires a fair weighting for the value of America’s association with freedom. When it came to supporting right-wing dictatorships in order to avoid communist takeovers, it was President John F. Kennedy who concluded, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” With this lesson in mind, Ronald Reagan helped escort Augusto Pinochet out of the presidency in Chile. When it came to fighting terrorism, it was George W. Bush who said that “in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty” and noted, “Successful societies protect freedom with the consistent and impartial rule of law.”
In his final campaign speech last year, Duterte said “forget the laws on human rights.” And that’s how he has governed. The problem with the current U.S. approach is not that the president has winced at such conduct but then invited Duterte, in a traditional display of realpolitik. The problem is that there is no visible wincing.
There has been a long debate about “private diplomacy” versus public criticism for human rights violations, and both have their roles in American foreign relations. During the recent visit of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt, for example, there was no public criticism of him for the three-year imprisonment of the American NGO activist Aya Hijazi. But it is obvious that Sisi was pressured to release her—and it may have been a precondition for his visit. Shortly after he returned to Egypt she and six other defendants were freed and all charges against them dropped. Sisi portrays the releases as an action of an independent judiciary; the Trump administration lauded Hijazi’s release, sent a plane to bring her home and brought her to the White House for a visit with the president. Trump’s lobbying for her release arguably succeeded where Obama’s efforts failed—because he quickly built a friendly relationship with Sisi that Obama had never had.
So private diplomacy worked. Fair enough, but as with Duterte (or Greeks, in the days of the military junta) there is a cost to an uncritical relationship with Sisi: the danger of embittering the view of the United States held by those being unjustly beaten, jailed, or killed during his time in power. Egyptians today have a remarkably unfavorable view of the United States (an amazing 10 percent favorable, in 2014) and one may wonder if decades of American support for dictatorships there is a partial explanation for this. As the great scholar Bernard Lewis observed about the Middle East in 2001, “Generally speaking, popular good will towards the United States is in inverse proportion to the policies of their governments. In countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, with governments seen as American allies, the popular mood is violently anti-American…. In Iran and [Saddam Hussein’s] Iraq, with governments seen as anti-American, public opinion is pro-American.”
What’s the magic formula, then? There is no magic, but instead a careful balancing of short- and long-term concrete interests, a realistic examination of how the United States can bring about actual improvements in respect for human rights, and a real understanding of the benefits to the United States from being seen to support human rights and democracy around the globe.
Ratner believes this is what the Trump administration is doing and writes that “officials have already had frank discussions with their Philippines counterparts, urging them to align their anti-drug campaign with the rule of law”—private diplomacy in action. He argues that “particularly with the help of a leader-level rapprochement,” strengthening our alliances in Asia “will strengthen pro-American elements in the Philippines government and military, and provide greater opportunities to influence Duterte to curb his excesses.” He supports the invitation to Duterte: “In the meantime, as long as the Philippines is a democratic and loyal ally, the doors of the White House should remain open to its president.”
In essence, this is what the Carter and Reagan administrations did about El Salvador. Back then, the argument was that abandoning Central America to Soviet-inspired insurgencies could not possibly advance human rights there; likewise today, many fear that pushing countries into the arms of an autocratic China will hardly advance U.S. values.
That’s right, then and now: The goal of human rights policy is human rights improvements, not purity. But these formulations do not sufficiently stress that along with invitations, phone calls and private pressure there must be some visible reaction to Duterte’s excesses. Otherwise, Filipinos will logically conclude that we are embracing him uncritically. They will not see the private messages and pressure, nor, obviously, will Duterte talk about them. They need to know that we condemn the violence and lawlessness, and will always talk to Duterte about these abuses when we see him. We need to be seen wincing.
There is a prequel to today’s drama with Duterte. In 1981, then-Vice President George H. W. Bush spoke of Ferdinand Marcos’s “adherence to democratic principles and the democratic process” and when Marcos visited the White House in 1982, no one raised human rights with him. But Marcos’s conduct worsened, and in 1983 Reagan cancelled a proposed visit to Manila. By 1984, the Reagan administration had to distance itself more and more from Marcos, and in 1986 Reagan himself was involved in ending Marcos’s three decades of rule—having his close friend Sen. Paul Laxalt tell Marcos the time had come to leave power and leave the Philippines.
The lesson is that we have long-term interests in the Philippines and in a relationship with the Filipino people. We should not squander the high opinion they have of the United States. We need to be sure they know that in our relationship with their elected (and still very popular) president, we will keep in mind not just maritime claims and military basing rights but also their rights.
Trump’s embrace of Duterte is acceptable as part of an overall policy that aims at helping to restore liberty and law to the Philippines. Without that context, it’s mistaken bet on an erratic and violent leader. The administration should clarify for Americans, but above all for Filipinos, which it is. The same is true in the case of Egypt, where the United States is such a large aid donor. Is the embrace of Sisi part of a broader policy of promoting human rights and democracy there, or is the policy a narrow form of realpolitik that is indifferent to the rights of the Egyptian people?
Two top Trump administration figures have addressed human rights policy recently, but they have unfortunately not answered these questions.
Vice President Mike Pence spoke to a “World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians” in Washington on May 11, where he said that “protecting and promoting religious freedom is a foreign policy priority of the Trump administration. Under President Donald Trump, America will continue to stand for religious freedom of all people, of all faiths, across the world.” But what does “stand for” mean? Pence told the audience, “So know, those of you that stare persecution in the face every day in distant lands, you have the prayers of the American people, prayers of my family, and you have the prayers of the President of the United States.” Those suffering from persecution presumably want more than prayers and words from the world’s superpower. Will they get it?
Pence told the assembled activists and clergy that under President Trump, the United States “will continue to condemn persecution of any kind, of any faith, any place, any time. We will stand against it with our ideals and with all our might.”
Again, “stand with” and “condemn” are terms that suggest at most talk but no action. Pence did say there would be action when it came to ISIS, a prime persecutor of Christians and others: “This President knows the terrorists will not stop until we stop them. And, under President Donald Trump, we will stop them.”
So the bottom line appears to be that when Islamist terrorists persecute Christians, the administration will fight them—as part of its commitment to fight terrorists. But it would seem that when the problem is instead a government—such as that of Sisi in Egypt—we will offer words and prayers, not action.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson outlined his views in a speech to State Department personnel in early May. It’s worth noting his exact language in full:
Guiding all of our foreign policy actions are our fundamental values: our values around freedom, human dignity, the way people are treated. Those are our values. Those are not our policies; they’re values. And the reason it’s important, I think, to keep that well understood is policies can change. They do change. They should change. Policies change to adapt to the – our values never change. They’re constant throughout all of this.
And so I think the real challenge many of us have as we think about constructing our policies and carrying out our policies is: How do we represent our values? And in some circumstances, if you condition our national security efforts on someone adopting our values, we probably can’t achieve our national security goals or our national security interests. If we condition too heavily that others must adopt this value that we’ve come to over a long history of our own, it really creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests. It doesn’t mean that we leave those values on the sidelines. It doesn’t mean that we don’t advocate for and aspire to freedom, human dignity, and the treatment of people the world over. We do. And we will always have that on our shoulder everywhere we go.
But I think it is—I think it’s really important that all of us understand the difference between policy and values, and in some circumstances, we should and do condition our policy engagements on people adopting certain actions as to how they treat people. They should. We should demand that. But that doesn’t mean that’s the case in every situation. And so we really have to understand, in each country or each region of the world that we’re dealing with, what are our national security interests, what are our economic prosperity interests, and then as we can advocate and advance our values, we should—but the policies can do this; the values never change.
And so I would ask you to just—to the extent you could think about that a little bit, I think it’s useful, because I know this is probably, for me, it’s one of the most difficult areas as I’ve thought about how to formulate policy to advance all of these things simultaneously. It’s a real challenge. And I hear from government leaders all over the world: You just can’t demand that of us, we can’t move that quickly, we can’t adapt that quickly, OK? So it’s how do we advance our national security and economic interests on this hand, our values are constant over here.
Tillerson is here wrestling with extremely difficult policy issues that he did not face in the private sector, as chairman and CEO of Exxon. His words show a man of good will approaching a new challenge: how to advance American interests and values when they appear to be in conflict.
But human rights advocates around the world will object to several points he made. To begin with, we are not trying to condition assistance on “someone adopting our values,” meaning American ideals or practices that are foreign to the rest of the world. Virtually every government that is violating human rights has signed up not only to the U.N. Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but also to the more specific International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. So American pressure to respect human rights, and to promote democracy, is not the imposition of some alien concept; it is asking governments to keep their own pledges.
Second, Tillerson refers to “government leaders” and how they resist demands that require them to move “too quickly.” Sure they do; they hold power and don’t want to give it up. But what of the people of those countries? Do they think their country “can’t adapt that quickly” to demands for a free press, or freedom of speech, free trade unions or fair trials? Why should we consult or be guided only by “government leaders” instead of asking for the advice of the opposition as well: opposition politicians, democracy and human rights activists, NGO leaders, trade unionists? Surely we would not be satisfied with Vladimir Putin’s counsel on whether Russia is ready for free elections, or Sisi’s on whether Egypt can tolerate a free press.
Third, Tillerson is still speaking of a perpetual conflict between values and interests. That conflict exists, in some places at some times, but is no more a universal condition than is its opposite, situations where values and interests coincide. Or to put it differently, to say that values and interests are entirely separate is to deny that it is an interest of the United States to have a foreign policy that reflects and advances our values. It is to minimize the gain to the United States from being seen to have a principled foreign policy that promotes freedom.
Of course, accepting that to support freedom is itself valuable for the United States is no panacea, and in case after case it will be necessary to compromise our principles in order to deal with real-world situations that are far from ideal. That’s realism. But in his initial thinking about human rights and foreign policy, Tillerson appears to have stacked the deck against a fair balance. One can hope that as he works at the problem, in situations he confronts around the globe, his own principles will lead him to a more powerful and “realistic” assessment of the importance of principle in American foreign policy.
The Trump administration and the president himself appear to be wrestling with human rights policy and so far, human rights policy is losing. The administration’s key policymakers are paying too much attention to the arguments and assurances of rulers and too little to their opponents (who are often tomorrow’s government officials), and American officials appear to be adopting a transactional approach to foreign policy that systematically underweights the value of America’s association with and support for liberty. One can only hope that this is the product in good part of inexperience, and that as with the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations, officials will come to see that realism itself demands a foreign policy that advances the cause of freedom.