Brian Klaas is a fellow in comparative politics at the London School of Economics and author of “The Despot’s Accomplice: How the West is Aiding and Abetting the Decline of Democracy.”
Over the past few weeks, President Trump stayed silent while security forces beat up pro-democracy reformers in the streets of Belarus and Russia. He showed more warmth toward Egypt’s military dictator than the elected chancellor of Germany, a long-standing NATO ally. He removed human rights restrictions for weapons sales to Bahrain, approving the blocked sale of F-16 fighter jets. And when Syria’s despot committed yet another war crime by dropping chemical gas on innocent civilians, Trump’s official response devoted more words to blaming former president Barack Obama than condemning dictator Bashar al-Assad.
If his early foreign policy is anything to go on, Trump is a man without a moral compass. Yet he’s also guiding America without strategic direction. Siding with dictators and despots at every turn, Trump is taking a hacksaw to American soft power, allowing the United States’ rivals to pick up the pieces.
About a year ago, I met in a cafe in Minsk with Mikola Statkevich, one of the leaders of the opposition in Belarus. He had just been released from nearly five years in prison for the “crime” of peacefully demanding democracy in his country. The government beat Statkevich, tossed him in a jail cell, and tried to break him in solitary confinement. “I was only allowed to meet with my family once a year, for two hours each time, behind glass,” he told me. His captors granted him only one hour per day out of his cell — in a closed space 35 paces long.
Yet his jailers didn’t break him. Instead, Statkevich was back at it again recently, leading street protests in late March. During the protests, hundreds were arrested and beaten. Statkevich himself was abducted by the Belarusian KGB. For three days, nobody — not even his family — had any idea where he was, or if he was even alive. Finally, on March 27, he returned from captivity, harrowed but still unwavering in his opposition to the regime.
About the same time, mass protests broke out in neighboring Russia. In dozens of cities, pro-democracy activists took to the streets to condemn the corruption of Vladimir Putin’s regime. The riot police greeted them with batons and beatings. The leader of the opposition, Alexei Navalny, was arrested and hauled off. Photos — like the one of a young woman clutching her purse while four police officers in riot gear carried her off to prison — made it clear which side America should be on.
And yet, as images of the brutality spread across the world, the White House remained silent. The State Department and U.S. Embassy in Belarus issued statements about the protests, but neither was signed by Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, let alone Trump. Perhaps this should come as no surprise. The president and his entourage have shown little interest in promoting American ideals overseas. Trump’s lone tweet on “human rights” (quotation marks in original) mocked then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry for caring about them.
That blatant moral cowardice embedded in Trump’s foreign policy is an important shift that will prove strategically disastrous.
As I’ve previously argued, America hardly has a spotless track record when it comes to promoting democracy. Throughout the Cold War and its aftermath, the United States gave a pass to some awful states if they were allies (such as Saudi Arabia). It did, however, at least press democracy hard on adversaries (such as Belarus and Russia). Indeed, George W. Bush’s secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, even went so far as to label Belarus as one of the world’s “outposts of tyranny.” The traditional American approach has been to push democracy as both a moral good in itself and as a geopolitical interest when expedient. This has never been an ideal strategy, but without it, the world would become significantly darker and more despotic.
Backing the peaceful protesters in Belarus and Russia wasn’t just morally justified — it was also strategically smart to strike a blow against authoritarian adversaries. And yet Trump said nothing. His administration left activists like Statkevich and Navalny — who hope to not only build democracy but also push their countries into closer alignment with Western governments — out in the cold.
That is a colossal mistake. It not only cedes America’s moral high ground but it also diminishes American soft power — the ability of the United States to shape global affairs without resorting to military force. The administration’s latest bungled response (to the chemical weapons war crime in Syria) only deepens the damage.
Unlike Mikola Statkevich or Alexei Navalny, Trump has never had to worry about getting beaten for his views or tortured for a tweet. But now he has a responsibility to think about those elsewhere who face real hardship in the shadows of authoritarianism — not only because it’s right but also because it advances American interests.
President Ronald Reagan spoke of America as a “shining city on a hill,” a beacon to the oppressed peoples of the world. He understood something critical: that American moral leadership, checkered as it may be, creates strategic gains. Trump is rapidly snuffing that beacon out, as his foreign policy sides with those who rule in darkness.