Of course, Trump is not the first U.S. president to meet with foreign authoritarian leaders. Franklin Roosevelt met many times with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin during World War II, Richard Nixon went to China to meet with Mao Zedong, and Ronald Reagan met several times with Zaire’s President Mobutu Sese Seko.
Criticism of these top-level meetings is also not new. In 1985, for example, Newt Gingrich described President Ronald Reagan’s meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev as “the most dangerous summit for the West since Adolf Hitler met with Neville Chamberlain in 1938 in Munich.”
Even brief gestures toward authoritarian leaders (or democratically elected leaders who act as strongmen) can draw negative attention. Republicans in Congress criticized President Barack Obama for shaking hands with Cuban President Raúl Castro at the 2013 memorial service for South African leader Nelson Mandela.
There are, of course, many possible reasons for a U.S. president to meet with an authoritarian leader. Presidents can use these occasions to push autocrats to improve their human rights records — or they could indicate a willingness to look the other way in exchange for concessions. Such a meeting can reflect anything from the opening of relations with a foreign power to a discussion of an ongoing crisis involving a third party.
Here’s the real question, then: Is Trump’s apparent willingness to meet with strongmen out of the ordinary?
We analyzed foreign leader visits to the United States
It is important to examine Trump’s decisions in a broader context. Using the Official List of Visits by Foreign Leaders that the State Department maintains, we compiled a list of visits by authoritarian leaders received by each U.S. president from Eisenhower to Obama. The Official List tallies visits by foreign leaders to the White House, as well as meetings that take place elsewhere in the United States.
To define “authoritarian regimes,” we used a measure political scientists commonly use to classify political regimes, the Polity scale. This index looks at whether a country holds regular elections but also weighs other factors, like constraints on the executive branch and the competitiveness of the political process.
We included both informal and formal visits in our tally, but excluded meetings that occurred during broader multiparty summits. We counted 247 visits by authoritarian leaders from 65 different countries — about four each year, on average.
Figure 1 shows the number of times each president met with a foreign authoritarian leader. Such visits have been commonplace under all recent presidents, at a rate of at least 12 per administration. Reagan’s visits with authoritarian leaders far exceeded those of other presidents, even others who also served a full eight years.
How frequently do these visits occur? Figure 2 shows the average number of such visits per years spent in office. Again, Reagan is in the lead, hosting authoritarian leaders an average of 7.5 times per year — but Jimmy Carter was not far behind at 6.75. Overall, there’s not a huge difference along party lines, we found. Republican presidents hosted authoritarian leaders an average of 4.1 times per year, while Democrats did so 3.5 times per year.
It might be the case that some presidents simply hosted more visitors overall, and thus hosted more authoritarians as a result. To analyze this, we also measured the percentage of each president’s foreign visitors who were authoritarians. In Figure 3, we found a different set of trends. First, Reagan’s high number of authoritarian visits seems to reflect, in part, that he simply hosted many foreign leaders in general. Viewed as a percentage of all visits, Reagan’s frequency of authoritarian visits was smaller than those of Gerald Ford, Carter, or Richard Nixon.
We also found another important trend. During George H.W. Bush’s term, the relative frequency of authoritarian visits to U.S. presidents dropped sharply and has stayed relatively low during subsequent administrations.
The drop in authoritarian visits could reflect the proliferation of global democracy, to some extent because of the fall of the Soviet Union but also due to other waves of democratization. This decline may also simply reflect the end of the Cold War, when U.S. leaders from both parties famously courted autocratic leaders — from the Shah of Iran to Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie — so long as they pledged to oppose communism. U.S. presidents also frequently met with Soviet leaders during the era of detente, and to discuss nuclear disarmament.
Trump is on track to break the pattern
Will the relative frequency of authoritarian visits stay small during the Trump administration? It is much too early to draw definitive conclusions, but early data suggest an increased willingness on the part of the Trump administration to engage with autocrats. Trump has already hosted 15 foreign leaders at the White House or his personal properties. Three of these leaders — from Egypt, Jordan and China — are considered authoritarians.
Trump met Feb. 2 with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, 13 days after taking office. No recent president has hosted an authoritarian leader that soon after taking office. Nixon and Reagan each hosted an authoritarian leader on their 42nd day in office.
If these trends continue, Trump may invite more strongmen to the United States than ever before. Based on his administration’s rhetoric so far, Trump seems unlikely to use these visits to press for democratization and respect for human rights. This, in itself, would send a very different U.S. message about global democracy and human-rights norms in the coming years.
Jack Hasler is a graduate student in political science at George Washington University.
Yonatan Lupu is an assistant professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.