"We must seek partners, not perfection."
These were perhaps the most tantalizing words U.S. President Donald Trump could offer to the more than 50 leaders of the Islamic world who attended his speech in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in May 2017. And perhaps no one was listening more intently to that message than an excitable young prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who was merely days away from kicking his older cousin out of the line of succession while preparing to take the reins of the kingdom.
The shock surrounding the grisly killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi all comes back to that sublimely surreal summit in Riyadh. The royal carpet at the now legendary Ritz-Carlton was rolled out for America's new, gilded president, cementing a powerful personal bond between the young prince and the Trump family dynasty. Less than a month later, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, expecting a wink and a nod from the Trump White House, launched an aggressive diplomatic offensive against Qatar over Doha's ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran. By November, high-powered CEOs flocked to the Ritz in Riyadh to pledge billions of dollars in investment at the kingdom's inaugural "Davos in the Desert" conference. Two months after that, the same palatial digs became a temporary prison for hundreds of Saudi royals charged with corruption.
When competition builds among great powers, strategic interests will generally trump human rights considerations in U.S. foreign policy. In today's geopolitical climate, China's technology-fueled style of authoritarianism provides a compelling alternative for authoritarian states that have grown weary of Western human rights lectures and see an opening to consolidate power.
Crown Prince Salman was on a roll, and he was not about to let anything get in his way. So long as he had the seemingly unwavering support of a White House fixated on crippling Iran and so long as he could count on Bloomberg, Financial Times and other major platforms to boost his image as the poster boy of reform in the Middle East, his strategy was clear: ruthlessly remove rivals from his path at home, squeeze regional partners to bend to his foreign policy priorities and double down on any foreign governments or corporations that dare to voice an opinion on his questionable methods.
But strategy by itself does not necessarily translate into strategic results. Placing Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri under house arrest and having him show up in selfies with the crown prince a few months later does not change the fact that any Lebanese leader will need a working relationship with Hezbollah to avoid paralyzing a deeply fractured country such as Lebanon. Cutting ties with Qatar will only give Doha more cause to shore up alliances with like-minded regional powers such as Turkey to avoid getting swallowed up by Saudi Arabia's shadow. And pursuing dissidents at any cost, including significant diplomatic and corporate fallout, could end up giving more space and credibility to the crown prince's rivals as questions over succession continue to swirl in the Saudi kingdom.
This was supposed to be the lesson of the Arab Spring for the United States and other powers in the Western world: Beware of getting overly attached to strongman personalities, keep your options open and focus on building up credible institutions in countries of interest to avoid getting caught in a lurch if and when a prized ally bites the dust. Perhaps that's easier said than done, especially when dealing with seemingly indestructible political dynasties or when democratic votes have the potential to produce unpleasant results.
The Blurry Line
That unavoidably blurry line around human rights and its role in U.S. foreign policy also tends to get a lot more contentious in a period of great power competition, and it can fluctuate widely between White Houses. In the Nixon-Kissinger era during the Cold War, the White House battled Congress to keep a tight lid on human rights concerns, from Chile's Pinochet to the Shah's Iran. As Kissinger said during his confirmation as secretary of state in 1973, "I believe it is dangerous for us to make the domestic policy of countries around the world a direct objective of U.S. foreign policy," insisting on a "pragmatic policy" in which the United States would have to determine whether or not "the infringement is so offensive that we cannot live with it” in managing the United States' bilateral relationships.
That ruthlessly realpolitik approach by the White House compelled a much more assertive Congress in 1976 to mandate annual reports from the secretary of state on the condition of human rights in countries that receive U.S. aid. President Jimmy Carter endorsed that track and made institutionalizing human rights oversight and cutting military aid to offending states a key feature of his foreign policy. President Ronald Reagan's administration returned to a more strategic approach, using human rights issues to rhetorically seize the moral high ground in its ideological crusade against communism, all while dealing much more pragmatically with unsavory allies in practice. President George H.W. Bush broadly continued with that approach, taking care to avoid a rupture in the Sino-U.S. relationship after the Tiananmen Square massacre, but he also gambled on interventions on humanitarian grounds in Panama and Somalia.
As great power competition waned and globalization took hold of the 1990s, human rights arguments gained more prominence in policy debates and U.S. foreign policy grew more experimental in practice. Under President Bill Clinton, the United States made humanitarian interventions in Haiti and the Balkans and held the prevailing, albeit mistaken, belief that China's entry into the World Trade Organization would be the long-term antidote to authoritarianism. President George W. Bush and his neoconservative camp combined the liberal idea of democratic peace promotion with military activism to capsize Iraq in an amorphous global war on terrorism. President Barack Obama, in trying to unbury the United States from its all-consuming wars in the Islamic world and prepare for rising competition from Russia and China, practiced a far more restrained approach to foreign policy overall, all while rhetorically championing democratic ideals abroad.
The Trump Approach
Like several of his predecessors, Trump follows a dualistic and selective approach to human rights issues, albeit in much blunter terms. Depending on whether a country is on the White House's friend or foe list, human rights will either be used as a Get Out of Jail Free card to reinforce strategic ties or as a hammer to whack problematic governments over the head. The White House approach to Saudi Arabia illustrates the former: A strategic partnership fueled in large part by a common agenda to weaken Iran and stabilize energy markets will overwhelm the near-term awkwardness over the Khashoggi affair or any other human rights spectacle that emerges from the kingdom. An overwhelming U.S. imperative to avoid a costly military conflict in Northeast Asia has largely omitted human rights from the U.S. diplomatic agenda on North Korea. But in the case of Iran's protest crackdowns, Turkey's detention of American evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson and China's treatment of the country's Uighur minority, the Trump White House has wielded human rights abuses and the threat of punitive measures as one of several pressure tactics to try to coerce these governments into meeting U.S. demands.
Some level of hypocrisy is expected from any president trying to steer U.S. foreign policy around human rights issues. But how foreign governments interpret the White House's general approach toward the subject from the onset will have a profound impact on their behavior. As journalist Tamar Jacoby described in a 1986 Foreign Affairs article on "The Reagan Turnaround on Human Rights," abuses in El Salvador, Haiti and South Korea soared just between Reagan's election and his inauguration. His rebuke of Carter for allowing human rights to get in the way of U.S. interests in Nicaragua and Iran brought a sigh of relief to authoritarian Cold War allies eager to shrug off Carter's human rights obsession. Similarly, the Saudi crown prince — along with a number of other regional players — interpreted Trump's message from the May 2017 summit as a clear-cut sign that the White House would not make human rights a fixture of Trump foreign policy.
So it's little wonder that the Khashoggi affair has appeared to have little impact so far on the crown prince's royal clout. Not only does the crown prince remain in the public limelight and retain an array of powerful economic and security portfolios with the king's blessing, but he is also heading up the investigation and internal intelligence restructuring triggered by a crime that he is widely believed to have commissioned. And even as Saudi Arabia continues to face the threat of sanctions and investment curtailments in the wake of the slaying, Riyadh is staying the course and holding business ties hostage over their meddling in Saudi affairs (Saudi Arabia has reportedly frozen a $2 billion Egyptian-German defense deal that it helped finance in response to Germany's freeze on arms exports licenses to Riyadh).
And that defiance is by no means limited to Saudi Arabia. In an incredible display of Gulf solidarity after the Khashoggi crisis, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates called for boycotts of companies that threaten to pull out of Saudi Arabia, including Virgin and Uber, two critical investors for Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund expansion strategy. What would compel these Gulf neighbors to jump on a bloodstained bandwagon and risk tarnishing their reputation among investors when the Khashoggi fallout could have been just as easily confined to the Saudi kingdom? The opportunity to underscore a deeper message: that foreign governments and companies are not allowed to have an opinion on how they run their domestic affairs.
In this era of great power competition, that message has a powerful endorser. China, in harnessing and exporting its technological prowess in running a surveillance state, offers a compelling alternative to a number of politically paranoid regimes that are no longer convinced that the Western liberal order is the inevitable organizing principle of the international system. China's emulative model of digital authoritarianism and its growing challenge to the United States as a peer competitor will encourage a number of governments to spurn human rights lectures with the growing confidence that Western strategic interests will trump their humanitarian concerns in the end. Can Germany, for example, really afford a major breach with Turkey or Poland over human rights when these front-line states serve a core, strategic interest in balancing against Russia? Would the United States harangue Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte over human rights when China is actively chipping away at the United States' alliance network in Southeast Asia?
A cycle thus emerges: As competition intensifies among the great powers, the maintenance of strategic ties will outweigh humanitarian concerns in managing U.S. foreign relations. Illiberal allies will gain more confidence to crack down on dissidents and curb freedoms in a bid to consolidate power. The more power consolidated under a single personality or clan in a repressive climate, the more vulnerable that political system is bound to grow over time. In the face of rumbling dissent, authoritarian personalities will resort to more extraordinary measures to hold on to their dynasties. More and more egregious human rights abuses will be exposed, and Congress and the White House will spar over the handling and interpretation of matters of security. And the United States will ultimately find itself in an all too familiar dilemma: U.S. strategic imperatives hanging by a thread from the hands of despotic and arguably indispensable allies.