When President Trump, in his inaugural address, declared that all nations have the right to “put their own interests first” and that the United States would “not seek to impose our way of life on anyone,” human rights advocates shuddered.
Trump has suggested that the United States and Russia are moral equals. He has said he might reinstitute torture as a counterterrorism tool and indicated that the slaughter of civilians by the Syrian regime was none of our business.
But this month, as his presidency approaches its 100-day mark, Trump appears to have had at least a partial change of heart.
He called Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “barbaric” for using chemical weapons against his own citizens and sent 59 cruise missiles to punish him. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley used her turn at the rotating Security Council presidency to hold a meeting devoted to human rights. Trump intervened to get Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi to free an unjustly imprisoned U.S. citizen, Aya Hijazi.
In a message to Congress last week, Trump said an administration review was underway to ensure that Russian “perpetrators of human rights abuses” are held accountable. And Tuesday, Trump’s comments in remembrance of the Holocaust marked his first substantive acknowledgment of the rise of anti-Semitism in this country and beyond.
The human rights community is not convinced. Amnesty International is marking Trump’s first 100 days with a list of 100 ways it says he threatens human rights and democracy, from immigration bans at home to funding cuts for aid programs and a failure to speak out on abuses by visiting leaders such as Sissi and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Human Rights Watch has a running blog noting similar stances.
“The big caveat here is this is an unpredictable president with no core convictions, and so who the hell knows what kind of president he’s going to be next week, much less over four years,” said Tom Malinowski, who served as head of the State Department’s human rights bureau under President Barack Obama. “Thus far, he has repeatedly made it clear that, with the interesting exception of the Syria strike, he doesn’t really have much interest in America as a force for good in the world.”
While U.S. policy has been inconsistent and far from perfect, Malinowski and others maintain, in terms that might resonate with Trump, that promotion of rights and values is part of the American brand and has benefits for national security policy. Whatever complicated views the rest of the world has of the United States, the capacity and at least occasional willingness to stand up for principles imparts a certain kind of power.
Beyond the realpolitik of the Cold War, the first institutional establishment of human rights as a formal policy goal came with Jimmy Carter, who elevated the issue to a State Department bureau. Ronald Reagan, who began with a preference for pressing change in communist rather than friendly authoritarian governments, ended up pushing for reforms in countries such as South Korea and the Philippines.
Both presidents and their successors, including Obama, were frequently accused of hypocrisy as they chose the human rights battles they wanted to fight. But all at least gave speeches, and took occasional action, on behalf of universal values and democracy.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who said he recently advocated for Hijazi’s release in his own talks with Sissi and was briefed on the latest negotiations, said that Trump “handled it the way things like this should be handled.”
“The United States can sometimes lead with things, and do it publicly, [in ways] that are offensive to people and likely not get the kind of result that we’d like, whereas working it quietly and making it a priority, but doing so in a way that is not a public embarrassment to the other party, that’s the way they worked this,” Corker said in an interview Thursday.
A former senior national security official in the George W. Bush administration agreed, as long as the private leverage is used effectively. “You cannot crack down your way to stability. It will not work and ultimately will undermine you . . . that’s what we have to be saying to these regimes,” said the former official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about the new administration.
Maybe, he said, the Trump administration is doing that behind the scenes. But “they’re pretty disoriented and disorganized. . . . I don’t know at this point what they’re doing. And I think they don’t know.”
Critics point to Trump administration words and deeds that belie an interest in human rights. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson skipped a public appearance, mandatory for his predecessors, to present this year’s State Department human rights report and then informed Congress that the administration would lift all human rights conditions on arms shipments to Bahrain. That same report judged that Bahrain had engaged in politically motivated killing, “restrictions on free expression, assembly, and association . . . arrests without warrants or charges and lengthy pretrial detentions — used especially in cases against opposition members and political or human rights activists.”
Trump has never concealed his fondness for strongmen. He publicly praised the visiting Sissi as “fantastic” and among the closest U.S. friends, with no mention of the military coup that brought Sissi to power, the more than 1,000 alleged extrajudicial killings by the government, and the tens of thousands of political and civil-society prisoners in Egypt.
As much of the world — including his own State Department — questioned the validity of a Turkish referendum that gave vast new powers to authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump called Erdogan personally to congratulate him on his victory.
A former senior Obama administration official acknowledged that “any administration gets itself in trouble coming in thinking there are no trade-offs. But I think this administration seems to have gone to the other extreme, in deemphasizing” human rights. “I do think it costs us. Without being naive about it, the American example counts for something in the world, not just in terms of what’s right or wrong, but in terms of our influence.”
“If the image is one in which we basically project that we don’t care what authoritarian regimes do,” the former official said, “I think that’s going to come at a cost for us.”