“The people of Venezuela are standing for freedom and democracy, and the United States of America is standing right by their side,” declared President Trump in February during a speech to the Venezuelan-American community. The statement elicited little controversy, yet it seemed to deviate from Trump’s commitment to “America First.”
But the crisis in Venezuela shows that U.S. interests and U.S. values often align. This shouldn’t be surprising for Trump. In the cases of rogue regimes such as Iran, North Korea, and Cuba, Trump has intermittently drawn attention to their human rights violations as part of his broader campaigns to thwart their threats to U.S. interests. More often, however, Trump has routinely ignored, denied, or even praised the abuses of some of the world’s bloodiest tyrants, particularly those with whom he seeks improved relationships.
That needs to change. A refusal to tell the truth about human rights violations contributes to the impunity of their perpetrators. It also promotes a moral relativism that undermines the authority at the heart of American power and leadership. And while even the most robust human rights policy will always grapple with the constraints of realpolitik, Trump can and should make clear that U.S. values, as a matter of policy and principle, are sacrosanct.
Barely two weeks after taking office, Trump responded to an interviewer’s contention that Russian President Vladimir Putin “is a killer” by insisting, “There are a lot of killers. Do you think our country is innocent?” In the year that followed, Trump described China’s authoritarian president, Xi Jinping, as a “good man” who “loves China” and the “people of China.” Trump extolled President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt for doing a “fantastic job in a very difficult situation.” Trump called the emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, a “great gentleman” whose “people love him.” Trump commended Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte for his fight against drug trafficking, which has included numerous extrajudicial killings.
On other occasions, Trump has sent conflicting signals. “No regime has oppressed its own citizens more totally or brutally than the cruel dictatorship in North Korea,” he said in his 2018 State of the Union address. Later that year, though, Trump appeared to reverse course, stating that he “fell in love” with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Even more disturbingly, Trump claimed that Kim “loves his people.” And during his recent summit with Kim in Vietnam, Trump said he believed Kim’s denial of responsibility for the death of American college student Otto Warmbier. Such reversals seriously undermine U.S. credibility on human rights.
To be sure, perfect consistency on human rights will never be possible. In the complicated case of Saudi Arabia, the murder of Saudi citizen Jamal Khashoggi has spurred international condemnation, but Trump is correct to argue that U.S. interests prevent him from discarding Washington’s relationship with Riyadh. For now, the United States must continue to rely on the kingdom and other repressive Arab regimes to counter Iran, ensure the stability of oil markets, host American military bases, and combat terrorist organizations. Washington cannot seek to isolate a flawed friend such as Saudi Arabia the way it does an avowed enemy regime such as Iran’s Islamic Republic.
At the same time, Washington needn’t abandon its principles in dealing with cases such as Saudi Arabia. On the contrary, as Trump’s rightful decision to sanction 17 Saudi officials complicit in the killing demonstrates, Washington retains a range of intermediate options to pressure its authoritarian allies without sabotaging their overall relationship. In fact, by pushing Riyadh to improve its human rights record, America can ensure that their relationship rests on a sustainable foundation. In offering evasive and misleading statements about Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s likely foreknowledge of Khashoggi’s murder, Trump undermined U.S. interests by alienating allies and sowing political division at home.
Moving forward, Trump should not remain silent on human rights just because he has a long way to go to restore his credibility. Condemnations of U.S. adversaries still serve a valuable purpose, because the crimes are real and their victims still look to the United States as one of their few remaining hopes for aid. Washington will always have opportunities to repair its credibility on this issue, because the democratic principles Americans practice at home provide the basis for its global leadership.
In this sense, Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address was largely a missed opportunity: The president articulated his policy toward Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, North Korea, Russia, and China, but said nothing about their domestic repression. Instead, he declared, “Under my administration, we will never apologize for advancing America’s interests.” While few Americans, whether Republican or Democrat, would suggest otherwise, the statement insinuated that human rights constitute an ancillary goal of his foreign policy.
And yet even then, Trump highlighted a notable exception. “We stand,” he said, “with the Venezuelan people in their noble quest for freedom.” It’s not clear why, in this instance, Trump prioritized Venezuela’s aspirations for liberty over others. Yet such rhetoric, which can and should serve as a model for statements against other repressive regimes, appears to reflect Trump’s implicit recognition that he hardly faces a binary choice between ensuring U.S. national security and fighting for a freer world.
Put differently, Trump need never apologize for advancing American values.