On Tuesday, the U.S. State Department held its first daily press briefing in two months. Spokesman Mark Toner gamely tried to field reporters’ questions, but as my Post colleague Josh Rogin has noted, he didn’t have much to say. “The scarcity of substance . . . was not Toner’s fault,” Rogin writes. “The problem was never a lack of press opportunities. It was and remains a lack of policies.”
And perhaps the biggest policy gap on display concerned human rights. Toner made one passing reference to human rights on China, so brief that a listener could have easily missed it. And when questioned about the spotty track record of the United Nations Human Rights Council, he couldn’t manage more than an awkward afterthought: “And as I said, we’re there, we’re at the table, we’re working on an agenda, we’ve been elected to a three-year term I think back in 2016, and we’re committed to human rights and fundamental freedoms and working to pursue those.” But by then he was already on to the next question: “Please, go ahead, I’m sorry.”
Democracy and human rights are clearly not destined to play a prominent role in the foreign policy of the Trump administration. While Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has occasionally made hopeful-sounding statements on this score, his actions often belie his words. On Friday, the State Department issued its annual report on human rights — but Tillerson rather conspicuously didn’t show up to present it. That was a break with long-established precedent, and at least one senator — erstwhile presidential candidate and fellow Republican Marco Rubio — called Tillerson out on it:
So why didn’t Tillerson make the effort? It’s entirely possible, of course, that we’re making too much out of his absence — but forgive us if we’re a bit jumpy these days. As we’ve mentioned before, President Donald Trump has never shown much interest in asserting U.S. leadership on democracy and human rights around the world. And we’re already starting to notice corresponding ripples.
During his confirmation hearing, for example, Tillerson notoriously refused to condemn Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s extralegal war on drugs, which has so far killed more than 7,000 people there. (The person who asked the question was none other than Rubio.) Duterte, for his part, has repeatedly expressed delight at Trump’s election, claiming this means that the new Washington thoroughly approves of how he’s running his country. (And why not? So far no one at State or in the White House has troubled to dispute Duterte’s assertion.)
Or look at this recent article from DemocracyPost’s own Brian Klaas on Thailand, where the military junta is treating the resounding silence from the Trump White House as tacit permission to continue dismantling the remains of democratic procedure in that country
In Malaysia, the election of Trump has nonplussed those who have been taking to the streets in huge demonstrations to call for Prime Minster Najib Razak to step down over corruption allegations. Trump has referred to Najib as “his favorite prime minister,” prompting many Malaysians to wonder if the Justice Department will continue its own investigation into the scandal surrounding their leader.
In Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been staging a vast crackdown on his own opponents in the wake of last year’s attempted coup, Trump’s ascent to power has also prompted a sense of relief among those who might otherwise have expected periodic scoldings from Washington. In an interview in December, the Turkish foreign minister expressed his fond hope that, under the Trump administration, “Turkey and the U.S. can once again become two allies motivated by a common vision.” (Translation: “Now we won’t have to listen to any of those sermons from the Americans about how we’re mistreating our own people.”)
And then, of course, there are those remarkable moments in which Trump has seen fit to praise Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, both of whom earned rebukes from the Obama administration for their treatment of domestic opponents.
Just to make matters worse, some regimes are even echoing Trump’s criticisms of the media to justify their own crackdowns on journalism. As this Post editorial points out, Cambodian leaders have warned Voice of America and Radio Free Asia to watch their step, citing as precedent the U.S. president’s recent banning of certain press outlets from briefings. The Kremlin has even started a website to heap scorn on media it accuses of engaging in “fake news.” For the Russians, needless to say, that’s a category that also includes the New York Times.
In the past, the influence of the United States has often served to check or moderate the nasty behavior of authoritarian leaders around the world. Now we are finally getting a chance to see what happens when Washington abdicates that role. The results are not pretty.
We are not even two months into the new administration. Yet this newfound American tolerance for dictators, strongmen and human rights abusers is already having a notably destructive effect. Will the White House and the State Department ever come to their senses?