There is plenty of evidence that President Donald Trump’s top priority, when it comes to world affairs, is to demonstrate that he is not Barack Obama. There is a “new sheriff in town,” a term used by some Trump aides, and one part of his nature is to not lose sleep over human rights or dreaming of a better world held to high idealistic standards.
Proud of his slogan, “America first,” he wants to walk away from a host of multinational structures that were Obama’s pride and joy. The United States has pulled out of the 12-nation Trans Pacific Partnership, and Trump is expected to announce soon that he does not intend to adhere to commitments of the Paris Climate Accord of 2015.
Trump has delighted Saudi Arabia and its Persian Gulf neighbors by disavowing what they saw as Obama’s naive lean toward Iran. In addition, Trump believes Obama was weak on North Korea, and thus the White House’s new mantra on that is, “The era of strategic patience is over.”
What about the era of human rights? America is proud to be the land of the free, but we have stopped demanding — at least for now — that foreign partners stand for freedom and justice. Why waste time and energy on that? In Trump’s view, “The world is a mess.” That is what he claims to have inherited, with a need for rapid remedies.
“The president is not a super-patient man” and “does not have time to debate over doctrine,” National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said last week. “Some people describe him as disruptive, and they’re right. This is good, good because we can no longer afford to invest in policies that do not advance the interests and values of the United States and our allies.”
McMaster did mention values, but what his boss values most is winning. At the White House in April, Trump lavished praise on Egypt’s authoritarian president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, for doing “a fantastic job.” Obama had shunned el-Sissi because of the lethally violent way he seized power in 2013.
When Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, won a referendum vote on April 16, granting him wider powers and alarming human rights campaigners, Trump was among the first and the few to phone Erdogan to congratulate him. The Turkish strongman is expected at the White House next week, just before Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Vatican.
Heads were shaking around the world when Trump had a friendly conversation last month with the Philippines president and invited him to Washington. Rodrigo Duterte is notorious for reportedly giving security forces a green light to kill alleged drug dealers and users, and Obama refused to meet him after Duterte aimed some choice curse words at the U.S. president.
Trump also, for some reason, said he’d be “honored” to meet with North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong Un, if circumstances were right.
There are risks in cozying up to authoritarian rulers. “When it works, it only works in the short term,” says Tamara Cofman Wittes, a Middle East expert in Hillary Clinton’s State Department who is writing a book on America’s habit of embracing dictators. “In the longer term, those regimes are inherently unstable. They may well either throw us over, or be overthrown. When that leader is gone — and eventually they all do go — the anti-Americanism that’s left behind is a corrosive obstacle to our interests.”
Consorting with dictators also makes it harder for America to be acknowledged as leader among our traditional democratic allies.
To be fair, let’s acknowledge that Trump takes a strong stand against a few dictators: Kim, as noted, and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Their common denominator is that they have styled themselves as enemies of the United States.
Dan Raviv is Washington correspondent for i24 News and author of “Friends In Deed: Inside the U.S.-Israel Alliance.”