Saudi Arabia’s apparent killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi — and the Trump administration’s haphazard response — is an unmistakable sign that U.S. foreign policy has swung too far away from its roots in promoting American values abroad. Readjusting President Trump’s “America First” ideology to include the promotion of democratic values is needed to prevent gross human-rights violations such as this, and to win the greater struggle against the expansion of authoritarian influence worldwide.
Khashoggi’s disappearance is not just the latest sign the Saudi regime under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, commonly known as MBS, is exporting its brutality beyond its borders. It also shows the authoritarian model championed by Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China is on the march and directly harming U.S. interests. The Trump administration now faces a crisis in its relationship with a key ally, and complications in all of its other policies regarding the Middle East.
To understand how U.S. policy failed in the Khashoggi case, we must grasp the larger context. MBS is following Putin’s foreign policy script: concentrating power, bullying neighbors, killing critics abroad and pushing the limits of aggression to test whether the world will push back.
“What we are seeing is a sort of Putinization of world order,” said Vance Serchuk, adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “Techniques the Russians pioneered and that went either unchallenged or appeared to be successful, others are now imitating.”
When the authoritarian expansion model seems preferable to the Western-led liberal world order, the United States loses out. Russia’s interference in Europe undermines the transatlantic alliance. China’s military takeover of the South China Sea challenges U.S. leadership in Asia. Saudi Arabia’s actions risk U.S. plans to confront Iran, to work toward Israeli-Palestinian peace and to fight extremism.
“America First” is a popular policy that responds to the American public’s weariness after 15 years of mismanaged overseas intervention. But it is becoming increasingly clear that a one-sided focus on principles of realism, pragmatism and nonintervention are not always the right way to advance U.S. interests and goals.
The Trump team is now learning the hard way what happens when you signal that authoritarian regimes — even allies — can do whatever they want. It emboldens bad actors to do things the American people and their representatives in Congress just can’t ignore, such as killing journalists on foreign soil.
Many argue that the United States can’t afford to break ties with Saudi Arabia. The United States has invested too much in the Saudi alliance to give it up now, the argument goes. If you owe the bank $1,000, the bank owns you, but if you owe the bank $1 million, you own the bank. The Saudis think they have us where they want us. MBS would love the Washington debate to be between those who want to end the alliance altogether and those who want to give them a pass — since he is sure that Americans will always end up choosing the latter.
That’s a false choice. In fact, there is a middle ground Washington must pursue. We must take this moment as an opportunity to reset the U.S.-Saudi relationship — with some new rules. We need more intensive engagement with the Saudis, not a wholesale rupture of relations, and that engagement should be with all of Saudi society, not just the crown prince. Then we need to make sure MBS and any other leaders flirting with the Putin model understand that the United States will advocate vigorously for our interests and our values, because in the long run they are inextricably linked.
More broadly, the United States has to make a worldwide case that the international system we built with allies over the past 80 years, one based on advocacy for rule of law, open markets, open societies and even human rights, is better than the Putin-Xi model. If the strategic battle is purely about interests, the United States will lose.
“We need a response that includes a meaningful values dimension and plays to our competitive advantage,” said Christopher Walker, a vice president at the National Endowment for Democracy. “We’ve put these things on a back burner, and we’re feeling it now because we need them to compete.”
There are signs that even a skeptical Trump is coming around to realizing values promotion as useful. The new China policy announced by Vice President Pence this month is strong on human rights and rule of law, because the administration realized these are arguments that work to our advantage.
Just governments that respect the rights of their people, limit their own power, permit dissent and open their societies make better allies. This is the message Khashoggi sent in his final column for The Post , a plea for international support for basic freedoms inside Saudi Arabia. His story shows why the Trump administration can’t succeed overseas unless it finds a way to incorporate American values into “America First.”