Enabling Autocrats Is Not in the American National Interest

Photo by Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Written by Michael McFaul, Director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) and former U.S. Ambassador to Russia. Views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of FSI or Stanford University.

Since the beginning of our republic, all American presidents have had to balance the dueling goals of advancing democratic values with the pursuit of security and economic interests. The tension first arose in response to the French Revolution. Should the United States support our most important ally at the time, the French monarchy, or those espousing the same values of our revolution? This tension became more pronounced in the twentieth century when the United States had the power to influence the domestic politics of other countries, including at times through the use of force. Some presidents embraced the mission of democracy promotion as a central tenant of American foreign policy. Others gravitated to more so-called “realist” strategies, placing more emphasis on the pursuit of conventionally defined security goals. But all presidents since World War II pursued both objectives to varying degrees — defending our values and pursuing our interests. Great champions of freedom such as Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush also worked with autocrats, be it in Latin America or South Africa for Reagan or Saudi Arabia for Bush. Likewise, self-described realists such as Richard Nixon or George H. W. Bush also made aspirational statements about America as a defender of righteous values. And most presidents who had to engage autocrats in the pursuit of American economic or security interests did so with a conscience, knowing and feeling the hypocrisy of the act.

President Trump marks a radical departure from all of these presidents, Democrat or Republican, realist or liberal. Trump does not even pretend to wrestle with the contradictions between our values and interests. Instead, he embraces dictators and chastises democratic leaders. He has devoted more critical words to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau than to Russia’s Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. Unlike previous presidents, Trump appears to feel no shame whatsoever in appeasing these autocrats.

What is striking about Trump’s embrace of dictators so far is that he has achieved few if any outcomes in the American national interest.

In making clear his distaste for any discussion of morality, ethics, or values in the conduct of his foreign policy, Trump has emboldened the world’s autocrats to undertake increasingly outlandish acts. Remarkably, Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, and now apparently Mohammad Bin Salman all now have ordered gruesome assassinations against people living outside of their countries during Trump’s time in office; two of these attempts succeeded. Yet, to date, none of these autocrats have received any rebuke from Trump personally, even when his own foreign policy administration rebuffed their actions. After Kim Jong Un appeared to have killed his half-brother in Kuala Lumpur in February 2017, Trump announced that he and the North Korean dictator had fallen in love. After the Putin regime ordered the assassination of Sergey Skripal in the United Kingdom in March 2018, the Trump administration responded, but Trump himself stood next to the Russian autocrat in Helsinki in July 2018 and professed his deep admiration for the Russian leader. Now in October 2018, the Saudi regime has assassinated journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and thus far Trump has only blamed the cover up as poorly handled, but not yet underscored the inhumanity of the operation. His administration has revoked the visas of those involved in the assassination, but not yet committed to any more serious punishment of Riyadh.

There is a pattern here.

In the past, American presidents who engaged with dictators justified their diplomacy by securing vital national interests, be it defeating Hitler in World War II, expanding American economic opportunities in China, or defeating terrorists in the Middle East. What is striking about Trump’s embrace of dictators so far is that he has achieved few if any outcomes in the American national interest. His bromance with Kim Jung Un has yielded only pledges about future denuclearization, not any actual reductions in North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. Trump champions the economic benefits of multi-billion-dollar arms sales to Saudi Arabia, but these big numbers are again mostly promises about future sales, and would have happened (and did happen before Trump’s time in office) without lavishing praise on Mohammad Bin Salman. Trump’s bearhug of Putin has yielded nothing — no Russian withdrawal from Ukraine, no new arms controls agreements, and not even a reversal of the ban on adoptions of Russian children for American families.

The horrific murder of Jamal Khashoggi adds a tragic, emphatic exclamation point to the bankruptcy of Trump’s present course. Hopefully, Trump might now see the wisdom of promoting our values and advancing our interests at the same time. But if he does not pivot, then his administration, the U.S. Congress, the private sector, and the American people must step up and fill the void. Invoking the Global Magnitsky Act, members of Congress should press for new sanctions against those Saudi officials involved in Khashoggi’s murder when they return from recess, and not just those who murdered Khashoggi, but those who ordered the assassination. Modeled after the Leahy Law, which prohibits financial assistance in purchasing arms for human rights abusers, the U.S. Congress could adopt new legislation prohibiting the sale of American arms to countries that grossly violate human rights. Politicians, administration officials, journalists and academics should question the false assumption of American dependence on Saudi Arabia for anything — be it oil, finance, or deterrence against Iran — and realize Saudi Arabia’s deep reliance on us for security and prosperity. Companies — especially lobbying firms — could interrupt or cancel their contracts with the Saudi government. And American citizens should vote for candidates committed to inserting morality as an element on American diplomacy.


Faculty views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies or Stanford University, both of which are nonpartisan institutions.