Every American president in recent history has had reasons to meet with dictators. Franklin D. Roosevelt divided up Europe with Stalin at the Yalta summit. Richard Nixon went to Beijing to meet Mao. Ronald Reagan welcomed Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos to the White House. Most of them met with Saudi princes, whether in Washington or Riyadh.
Contact is unavoidable; so too, sometimes, are deals, often justified as embarrassing sacrifices to be made in the name of a greater good. During the Cold War, the United States often backed vicious authoritarian leaders against vicious communist insurgencies. The reasons for this were best articulated by Jeane Kirkpatrick, who argued that while authoritarianism could be modified, communism could not, because its totalitarian aspirations killed off commerce, religion, civil society and much else.
This proved untrue — after 70 years, communism eventually collapsed — and as a policy it often ended badly (see: Vietnam). Yet even the most retroactively embarrassing encounters were at the very least part of a larger strategy. When Reagan welcomed Ferdinand Marcos to the White House in 1982, for example, he was careful to speak of the history of U.S.-Philippine friendship, “forged in shared history and common ideals.” He also praised the Philippine constitution: “Independence, liberty, democracy, justice, equality . . . are engraved in our constitutions and embodied in our peoples’ aspirations.”
In his frequent and markedly enthusiastic comments about dictators, we hear no such aspirational language from President Trump. His admiration for men who torture and murder their opponents contains no historical or ethical nuance, no reference to theoretical ideals. Compare Reagan’s language in 1982 with Trump’s language a few weeks ago, when Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, Egypt’s brutal dictator, visited Washington. “I just want to let everybody know, in case there was any doubt, that we are very much behind President Sissi,” he told the cameras. “He’s done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation.”
Sissi has arrested tens of thousands of people, many of them tortured, many of them imprisoned for the “crime” of running independent charities or organizations.
His brutality is such that I’ve heard his prisons described as “factories for the creation of future Islamist fanatics.” His war on his people will increase instability in the region. Yet Trump’s language was not just positive but also personalized. Sissi, he declared, has been “very close to me from the first time I met him.”
For Sissi, this encounter was important: It helped to solidify his authority at home, justify his brutality and reinforce his power. Trump’s congratulatory call to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after he won (probably through rigging the vote) a referendum giving him dictatorial powers will help him enforce those, too. Trump’s White House invitation to Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippine president who has ordered police to shoot thousands of suspected drug dealers without arrest or trial, will have the same effect: “You know, he’s very popular in the Philippines,” said Trump. “He has a very high approval rating in the Philippines.”
None of this lavish praise has a strategy behind it. (In some cases, it may shore up the president’s business interests. Trump has investments in the Philippines, as well as Turkey, from which he derives undisclosed income; Duterte has already sent Trump’s Manila business partner to be a special envoy to the United States.) Nor is there evidence to suggest deeper diplomatic goals or some kind of clever game. Instead, Trump’s apparent admiration for bizarre and cruel men such as Kim Jong Un — he called the North Korean dictator a “smart cookie” whom he would be “honored” to meet — is simply consistent with his long-standing practice. He has willingly worked with corrupt and otherwise unsavory business partners in the past — he chose, for example, to partner with allies of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps in the construction of a mysteriously empty luxury building in Azerbaijan — and now he’s still doing it.
Because Trump says so many outrageous things every day, it’s easy to lose sight of just how dramatic this shift in paradigm is going to be and just how profound will be the consequences on the ground. For 70 years, the United States has helped maintain peace in much of the world thanks to a system of alliances based on a common belief in democracy. For the same period of time, American presidents have supported those alliances rhetorically as well as militarily and economically, and the United States has profited from that support. Now that the U.S. president no longer distinguishes between dictators and democrats, expect the former to grow stronger and more violent. Expect democratic alliances to grow weaker. Expect peace and prosperity to diminish.
Expect people to look elsewhere for moral leadership. During a televised meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin this week, one Western leader publicly asked him to stop religious repression and the torture of gay men in Russian prisons. That’s the kind of language we were once accustomed to hearing from the “leader of the free world” — and, of course, that’s the language we can expect now only from the chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel.