IT IS not true that President Trump and members of his administration never speak of the horror of human rights abuses and authoritarianism. Just the other day, in his address to the South Korean National Assembly, Mr. Trump vividly depicted the consequences of the “cruel dictatorship” of North Korea: the gulags, forced labor, torture, starvation, propaganda and surveillance of a people largely denied contact with the outside world.
But on the same trip to Asia, which ended Tuesday with Mr. Trump’s return to Hawaii, the president went to China and expressed admiration for “a very special man,” President Xi Jinping, who has just elevated his intolerant and iron-fisted rule to a cult of personality not seen since Mao. Mr. Xi suffocates freedom and throws dissidents into prison; China has erected the world’s largest digital firewall to blind citizens to the outside world. Mr. Trump may have noticed that, after their meeting, Mr. Xi did not bother to take questions from the press. Mr. Trump uttered not a word of protest.
What this trip showed — and Mr. Trump’s overall foreign policy reflects — is that human rights and democracy are seen by the president not as universal principles demanding attention everywhere, but as cudgels to be rolled out selectively, to criticize tyrants and rights abusers when convenient, and to be easily ignored elsewhere. There always has been tension in U.S. foreign policy between human rights and other priorities; Mr. Trump is not the first president to have to balance competing priorities. He is the first in memory, though, to show so little devotion to democracy and human rights as values — and such enthusiasm for leaders who are contemptuous of those values. His eagerness to cast aside any concern for liberty when it comes to his autocratic friends in China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the Philippines undermines the human rights rhetoric he employs, no matter how forcefully, with regard to regimes he dislikes, such as North Korea’s.
In a tough speech on Nov. 1, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley called out Raúl Castro’s regime in Cuba for “failure to meet even the minimum requirements of a free and just society.” On Nov. 7, the State Department issued a strong statement denouncing Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro for suffocating democracy. But Mr. Trump sailed through Asia with hardly a public word about the persecuted Rohingya Muslims in Burma, where hundreds of thousands have fled brutal ethnic cleansing. (He mentioned it only behind closed doors in his final talk with regional leaders.) Mr. Trump did not call out Vietnam’s leaders for egregious repression of free expression. In the Philippines, he did not express discomfort at the thousands of extrajudicial killings by police and vigilantes of drug suspects under President Rodrigo Duterte, and he laughed as Mr. Duterte attacked journalists as “spies.”
It should not be difficult for an American president to speak out on any of these. By giving so many free passes to authoritarians, while treating human rights as an expediency, Mr. Trump emboldens those who would crush dissent and stifle liberty.
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