President Donald Trump’s defense of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, despite the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusions that the Prince ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, is shocking on many levels. First, the President seemed to be placing more stock in the Saudi leader’s repeated denials of involvement than in the assessment of his own country’s intelligence agencies—just as he had in July in Helsinki, when Russian President Vladimir Putin denied interfering in the 2016 American election. Second, Trump indicated that arms sales to the Kingdom and supposed Saudi investments in the United States were more important than any human rights problems in the bilateral relationship, including the brutal murder of a U.S. resident (Khashoggi lived in Virginia). Third, and related, Trump did enormous harm to the cause of human rights and the standing of the United States as the leader in this area over the years. America’s record on human rights has never been perfect, but it has never seen its leader essentially show such disdain for the cause until now.
Slightly more than a century ago, seeking Congress’s support for declaring war on Germany on April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson declared: “The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them.”
Following the failure of the League of Nations during a period of isolationist retrenchment in the 1920s and 1930s, the United States entered World War II to defend allies against the tyranny of the Axis Powers. Ever since, more or less, American foreign policy has worked to promote self-governance and human rights for others around the world. The establishment of the United Nations and NATO and the launching of the Marshall Plan, together with support for European integration, laid the foundation for democratic expansion in Europe and later in other parts of the world.
After World War II, human rights and democratic governance made great strides around the globe. The “Second Wave” of democracy, as the late Samuel Huntington described it, followed the Allied victory in the war and the transformation of Germany, Japan, and Italy from vanquished powers into thriving democracies. The “Third Wave,” during the 1970s and 1980s, brought democratic movements to Latin America, Europe, and Asia, culminating in the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, and, two years later, the demise of the Soviet Union.
These waves, however, were not automatic. Indeed, Freedom House, in its annual survey Freedom in the World, has documented a decline in political rights and civil liberties for the past 12 years. Nor were these democratic waves always the result of clear American support. During the earlier period of the Cold War, the United States often preferred authoritarian governments as long as they maintained anti-communist credentials. By the 1970s, U.S. policy started to shift, with a greater emphasis on the human rights records in other countries regardless of their political leanings. In the 1980s, the United States even played a role in facilitating the departure from power of right-wing leaders in the Philippines and Panama. It supported the liberation of Warsaw Pact countries from Soviet influence, leading soon after to the fall of the USSR and, as President Ronald Reagan called it, the “evil empire” that it represented.
Soon after, citizens elsewhere around the world, from South Korea to South Africa, demanded better from their governments, respect for human rights, the ability to choose their own leaders, and the right to speak freely. They championed universal values and liberties; democratic societies, especially the United States and those in Europe, played an important role in offering alternative models to communist and/or authoritarian regimes.
In 1983, with strong Congressional backing, the Reagan Administration launched the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and its related organizations: the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI), the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), and the Solidarity Center. These organizations formed the core of American efforts to promote democracy around the world. Other organizations—such as Freedom House, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First, and Amnesty International—have played a critical role, too. No other country has devoted the resources or personnel to support freedom and human rights worldwide.
Now, 100 years after the end of World War I and some 70 years after the foundation of the liberal international order that emerged from the devastation of World War II, the democratic world confronts great challenges and uncertainty. A dangerous Russia under Putin, a rising China under Xi, a threatening North Korea under Kim, a menacing Iran under the mullahs, a growing populist and nationalist wave in Europe and even Brazil, and doubts about the direction of the United States all combine to paint a picture of a world in turmoil and freedom under duress.
How Did We Get Here?
“There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom,” declared President George W. Bush in his Second Inaugural Address in January 2005. “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world. . . . It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”
Few would question Bush’s passion for and commitment to the cause of freedom and human rights around the world. He began discussing the need to reexamine the Middle East, a region that had no experience or history with democracy, but which, he argued, should not be written off as hopeless. As his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wrote in 2005, “Though the broader Middle East has no history of democracy, this is not an excuse for doing nothing. If every action required a precedent, there would be no firsts. We are confident that democracy will succeed in this region not simply because we have faith in our principles but because the basic human longing for liberty and democratic rights has transformed our world.”
And yet there is no denying that Bush’s Freedom Agenda was irreparably damaged by the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, as well as scandals like Abu Ghraib and renditions. After finding no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq following the invasion of that country in 2003, the Bush Administration sought to bring democracy to Iraq, an effort that has largely failed. Bush’s Freedom Agenda, while admirable in its rhetoric and aspiration, was troubled by inconsistent and unrealistic implementation.
Influenced by that experience, Barack Obama told the Washington Post editorial board five days before his inauguration as President in January 2009 that he did not support promoting democracy “through the barrel of a gun.” Obama’s implicit criticism of the Bush Administration’s efforts to promote democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan evolved into a broader reluctance throughout his two terms to promote democracy and human rights around the world— see, for example, his Administration’s reaction to and handling of the Green Movement in Iran in June 2009, the Arab Spring in 2011 and the Egypt coup of 2013, and the reluctance to meet with the Dalai Lama for fear of offending Beijing. His Administration opposed passage of the Magnitsky Act, which Congress approved by huge bipartisan majorities in 2012 to impose sanctions on Russian officials involved in gross human rights abuses. Unlike Bush, Obama rarely met with human rights and civil society activists either in Washington or during travel overseas.
Bush’s unpopularity in Europe did not prevent the United States from working with allies to advance human rights. It sustained the Community of Democracies, an initiative launched by the Clinton Administration and then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. It coordinated with the European Union on sanctions against the regime in Belarus of Aleksandr Lukashenka for his repressive policies. It worked together on pushing back against the military junta in Burma. And even when the United States withdrew from the United Nations Human Rights Commission in 2008, it forced that entity to reexamine itself, its disproportionate focus on Israel, and its questionable membership (these problems would return, however, leading the Trump Administration to pull out of its successor, the Human Rights Council).
In contrast to Bush, Obama was very popular in Europe (even after announcing his “pivot” to Asia), but, influenced by the war in Iraq, he placed less emphasis on advancing human rights and freedom around the world. Nevertheless, the Obama Administration worked closely with its allies in continuing the pressure on the junta in Burma, now Myanmar. The Community of Democracies has continued—and for the past year has even had an American as its executive director. The United States returned to the UN Human Rights Council under the Obama Administration and worked in supporting various special rapporteurs for challenging human rights situations around the world. And after the Magnitsky Act became law, the Administration, despite its initial opposition to the legislation, encouraged other countries to follow suit, and to date five (Canada, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and the United Kingdom) have passed similar legislation, as has the European Parliament and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
At the same time, the 2008 global financial crisis left many people disillusioned with the ability of democracies to deliver. That crisis and the uneven recovery from it, along with increasing migrant and refugee flows, opened the door for populist leaders to walk through in subsequent years. Some would proudly proclaim themselves to be leading “illiberal” democracies,” while others would scapegoat refugees fleeing for their lives, stirring up nationalism and extremism.
Fast forward to the current Administration. President Trump’s clear affinity for strongmen leaders, his failure to fill the position at the State Department responsible for democracy, human rights, and labor two years into his term, his undemocratic rhetoric, and his efforts to cut aid in this field have done enormous harm to the leadership role played by the United States over the years. Despite the problems associated with Bush’s Freedom Agenda and Obama’s seeming lack of interest in the issue, human rights activists and dissidents still turned to the United States for moral, financial, and political support. These days, they are not sure where to turn.
Under the current Administration, human rights simply are not a priority, a position made crystal clear by Trump’s recent comments concerning Saudi Arabia, despite the Kingdom’s abominable treatment of human beings and the murder of Khashoggi. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned that prioritizing American values (human rights) could harm other American interests, a position for which he was roundly criticized. Trump’s admiration for leaders like Egypt’s Sisi, the Philippines’ Duterte, Russia’s Putin, and North Korea’s Kim is demoralizing to human rights advocates everywhere. Despite Kim’s unparalleled brutality in North Korea, Trump at a campaign rally said that he and Kim “fell in love” through their various exchanges; one can only imagine if Obama had said such a thing. There are two positive exceptions to this record: 1) the current Administration has maintained sanctions under the Magnitsky Act on Russian officials and imposed additional sanctions under the global version of it, albeit under Congressional pressure, and 2) the Administration has spoken out on the abuses committed by the Maduro, Castro and Ortega regimes in Latin America.
What Is to Be Done?
Supporting human rights and democratic governance around the world does not and should not mean imposing American values on others or staging military interventions. Each country, if given the opportunity, will develop in its own unique way. But our support does involve peacefully aiding local activists who look to the United States for moral, political, diplomatic, and sometimes material support. These activists often risk prison, torture, and death struggling for a more democratic society; helping them reflects our own highest principles. It is the least we can do.
Today, with the current wave of nationalism and populism, human rights are facing new challenges from some unexpected places, including the United States—but don’t expect advocates to quit. NATO and the European Union, along with the OSCE have played a key role on the European continent in supporting the cause of human rights and freedom; while not a member of the European Union, the United States is a key member of NATO and the OSCE.
In the Western Hemisphere, despite a long history of authoritarian rule, sometimes aided and abetted by the United States, individuals have challenged human rights abuses. With the support of the Organization of American States (OAS), the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man in 1948 established a vehicle for the investigation of human rights abuses throughout the hemisphere with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which was followed 20 years later by the establishment of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Here, too, the United States has played an important role.
Safeguarding the institutionalization of human rights within these organizations is absolutely critical to guarantee that defenders and advocates have a strong voice. As long as they keep on taking the risks to do so, they deserve to have the United States standing with them. But this requires speaking out consistently when abuses occur. It mandates placing human rights and advancing the cause of freedom high on the foreign policy priorities list. It means distancing ourselves from authoritarian regimes, recognizing that the way they treat their own people is often indicative of how they will behave in foreign policy and toward other countries. It means not whitewashing gross human rights abuses.
In his address before the UN General Assembly this past September, President Trump underscored the idea of sovereignty, declaring: “We will never surrender America’s sovereignty to an unelected, unaccountable global bureaucracy. America is governed by Americans. We reject the ideology of globalism. And we embrace the doctrine of patriotism.” Trump went on to inform his fellow leaders that “the United States will not tell you how to live or work or worship. We only ask that you honor our sovereignty in return.”
Such a declaration both misrepresents what the United States had sought to do over the past seven-plus decades in maintaining and nurturing the international order—which has largely been a huge net gain for human rights and democracy, albeit with significant exceptions—and telegraphed to authoritarian leaders that they could get away with bloody murder without worrying about repercussions from the United States, either bilaterally or through multilateral organizations. That became even more explicit with the murder of Khashoggi.
“Democracy has spread and endured,” writes Robert Kagan in his most recent book, The Jungle Grows Back, “because it has been nurtured and supported: by the norms of the liberal order, by the membership requirements of liberal institutions like the European Union and NATO, by the fact that the liberal order has been the wealthiest part of the world, and by the security provided by the world’s strongest power, which happens to be a democracy.”
And yet, in 2018, as Patricia O’Toole writes in her book, The Moralist: Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made, “as Woodrow Wilson’s 100 years came to an end, the peaceful world order of his dreams was nowhere in sight. Nationalism and autocracy were on the rise and democracy was under attack in some of the most democratic countries on earth, including the United States.”
President Trump’s latest dismissal of human rights as a matter of interest will be welcomed not only by the Saudi Kingdom but by authoritarian regimes around the world. Buy enough arms and pledge to invest enough in the United States and the Trump Administration will turn a blind eye to gross human rights abuses. Human rights defenders, by contrast, will feel abandoned. They need and deserve the support of the United States and that of other democracies. American leadership, hard to envision right now, must be restored to carry on this indispensable mission.