It’s no secret that the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has been unimpressed with Donald Trump’s foreign policy team. Nonetheless, because he is the presumptive nominee of a major party, it’s important to pay attention to the things this team says. So when Trump adviser Carter Page gave a speech in Moscow late last week, I paid attention. The Washington Post’s Andrew Roth provided a write-up:

An American foreign-policy adviser to Donald Trump chided the United States on Thursday for an “often-hypocritical focus on democratization, inequality, corruption and regime change” in its dealings with Russia, China and Central Asia.
Carter Page, an energy executive tapped by the presumptive Republican nominee’s campaign for his business experience in the former Soviet Union, told students and journalists gathered in a Moscow lecture hall that Washington had missed opportunities to work with leaders such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping because it had ignored principles of “respect, equality and mutual benefit.”
Page’s remarks put him, like Trump, at sharp odds with the Obama administration and traditional Republican policy circles, which have viewed Russia in more adversarial terms over the war in Syria, the conflict in Ukraine and other issues….
Page is an outsider to Republican policymaking circles. But he has regularly criticized U.S. intervention and on Thursday quoted Putin in Russian as saying that his country does not intervene in the internal politics of other nations.

Now, in some ways, this critique is unsurprising. To the extent that the Trump campaign has a foreign-policy worldview, that worldview is pretty realist, and realists are not big fans of meddling in the domestic affairs of other countries. So this sounds like Realpolitik 101.

But it’s still a very strange criticism, because, by and large, President Obama has not been particularly zealous when it comes to democratization and democracy promotion. This doesn’t mean it’s a nonissue for the president. Indeed, the president took the time during his Warsaw trip to publicly critique Poland’s antidemocratic turn. But it hasn’t been a high priority for this administration. As Obama told Jeffrey Goldberg for the Atlantic magazine:

I also believe that the world is a tough, complicated, messy, mean place, and full of hardship and tragedy. And in order to advance both our security interests and those ideals and values that we care about, we’ve got to be hardheaded at the same time as we’re bighearted, and pick and choose our spots, and recognize that there are going to be times where the best that we can do is to shine a spotlight on something that’s terrible, but not believe that we can automatically solve it. There are going to be times where our security interests conflict with our concerns about human rights. There are going to be times where we can do something about innocent people being killed, but there are going to be times where we can’t.

If there’s a germ of truth to the caricatured partisan critiques of Obama’s foreign policy record, it’s that he has been more willing to criticize the flaws that exist in the domestic politics of U.S. allies more than U.S. adversaries. Whether it was the Green Movement in Iran or the protests in Hong Kong, the president has tended toward silence on the topic, albeit sometimes for strategic reasons.

This holds with particular force for Russia, as former ambassador Michael McFaul accidentally pointed out in a weekend tweet:

What’s fascinating is that McFaul was an anomaly among Obama’s diplomatic corps in being relatively outspoken about human rights and democracy. Even he acknowledges, however, that Edward Snowden has been more critical of Russia’s human rights record than he has. And when the administration has focused on these issues, it has mostly been on the ways in which increased trade and exchange can improve a country’s human rights record, as with the lifting of the Cuba embargo or the Trans-Pacific Partnership with Vietnam.


To be fair to Obama, he has a strategic logic to his reticence on questions of human rights and democracy. He was elected at a moment when the Bush administration’s policy on democracy promotion had been badly tarnished. To his credit, Obama has repaired much of that damage. Furthermore, as his quote to Goldberg shows, Obama is quite cognizant that there are other strategic issues at play.

But to be fair to Obama’s critics, the de-emphasizing of democracy promotion has not come without some cost. Freedom House has been banging on about a “democracy recession” for some time now. And as Noah Smith recently summarized over at Bloomberg:

The Economist Intelligence Unit maintains democracy index, which it says has been “in limbo” or declining since the index was created in 2006. Reporters Without Borders, an international nonprofit, sees a “deep and disturbing decline” in press freedom around the globe. And the widely used Polity IV data set shows the number of democratic countries stagnating or falling in almost all regions of the globe since the early 2000s. The World Economic Forum believes that the liberal order is being “challenged by a variety of forces.”

There are strong secular forces at play here, so it is far from certain that if Obama had emphasized human rights and democracy promotion, things would have worked out any differently. But this makes Page’s criticism of U.S. foreign policy even more odd. The sources of foreign policy frictions between the United States and Russia have little to do with democracy or human rights and everything to do with Russian revanchism in Ukraine, the Baltics and the Middle East.

If a Trump administration were to promote yet another reset with Russia, it would not be reflected in any shift in human rights rhetoric, because there’s nothing to shift. It could only show up in U.S. appeasement in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.