In early April, President Donald Trump hosted Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi at the White House. Trump laid on the superlatives, saying of Sisi, “I think he’s doing a great job … I can just tell you he’s doing a great job. Great president.”
The visit came as Sisi was preparing a constitutional referendum that would strengthen his regime and create an even more authoritarian system. The referendum, approved on April 23, will enhance the military’s role, reinforce executive power at the judiciary’s expense, extend the president’s term to six years and likely leave Sisi in office until 2030. And it will reestablish a Senate, a third of whose members will be appointed by the president. Yet all this was trivial to Trump, who is indifferent to democratization in the Middle East. His welcoming of Sisi implicitly endorsed the referendum’s goals.
If there were any doubts about Trump’s disposition, he dispelled them a few days later when he undermined his own secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, over Libya. Trump effectively validated the offensive of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who is currently seeking to take control of Tripoli and remove the internationally recognized government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. Haftar is seen as an authoritarian figure who would like to reimpose repressive rule over Libya. Though Pompeo had affirmed U.S. opposition to the offensive on April 7, Trump nullified this by later calling Haftar to praise his efforts in fighting terrorism and “securing Libya’s oil resources.”
Trump has never met a dictator he doesn’t like. The more despotic they are, the more effusive is Trump when mentioning them. However, the erosion of democratic values in U.S. foreign policy actually began with Barack Obama, who was as cold to democratic aspirations, particularly in the Middle East. He reacted with aloofness to protests in Iran in 2009, saying he would pursue a dialogue with Tehran, while adding that U.S. “meddling” in the country would be counterproductive. Rather than seeing in the Arab uprisings an opportunity to rally behind societies in search of liberty, Obama was cautious and evasive, abandoning the Syrian people to a horrifying fate even as he cozied up to Iran and used the nuclear deal to do so.
Washington’s support for democracy has long been an enduring exercise in hypocrisy. For decades U.S. administrations mouthed platitudes about representative government and the rule of law, while continuing to support regimes that were undemocratic, corrupt, and lawless. In that regard, some would defend Trump’s behavior as a more honest reflection of how things really operate. Rather than talking about democracy disingenuously, the president approaches the issue as would any political realist, arguing that the world is made up of bastards, “but at least some of whom are our bastards.”
However, blithely dismissing democratic ideas in foreign policy would be a mistake. Democracy has long been essential to America’s self-perception and its behavior in the world—effectively underlining a sense of American exceptionalism. Some may scoff at the idealized view that many Americans have of their country, all the more those who have been victims of the United States. But that does not make this view any less powerful as a foreign policy instrument.
For much of the 20th century American administrations have blended power politics with Wilsonian idealism—the conduct of foreign policy according to moral standards, first enunciated by president Woodrow Wilson. While this may not have made the world much more democratic, it added a valuable dimension to American policy decisions that could be used against outside adversaries, while also bolstering domestic support for foreign policy choices.
For example, decades of military expenditures during the Cold War could not have been sustained without a perception by Americans that they were engaged in a morally just crusade against communism. Similarly, America’s most enduring alliances after World War II were built around common principles of democracy and humanistic values, even as the United States associated with unsavory authoritarian regimes. This ambiguity provided the United States with multiple foreign policy identities that it ably exploited to its advantage.
But Trump has opted for a foreign policy based purely on power relations. The problem here is that as the U.S. has embraced such an approach it has pushed others to form alliances or relations of convenience to counterbalance American actions. That is why the Europeans are on the same page as Russia and China in trying to save the nuclear deal with Iran. They are reacting to Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from an international agreement, endorsed by a United Nations Security Council resolution, without consulting his allies. Whether Trump was right or wrong is irrelevant. In playing the power game the U.S. must now ensure it can prevail, and in a way that does not permanently harm its bilateral relationships.
The U.S. president’s slash and burn approach suggests that he is not particularly concerned about where his actions lead. He must imagine that power will always impose a logic of its own, forcing others to follow. Trump would not necessarily be wrong. However, as he looks at the Middle East, a more sensible approach would be to understand that enabling dictatorship is highly unlikely to enhance U.S. interests, and it offers no guarantees of stability.
Doubtless, Trump paid little attention to what happened in 2011, when Arabs everywhere stopped the clock on their authoritarian social contracts. They were no longer willing to give their leaders extensive power in exchange for being taken in hand by the state and receiving a dwindling share of national wealth. That rebellious impulse has continued more recently in places such as Algeria and Sudan, and may extend to other countries in the region. As despots circle their wagons, Trump is only helping them by surrendering America’s most powerful weapons—democracy and the rule of law—before new battles even begin.
Are we surprised? Most American presidents are at the center of international attention because they can shape the global democratic agenda. Obama failed in that regard, and many innocent Syrian civilians paid for this. Trump is even worse. If one day he decides to muster some interest in what is taking place outside his increasingly self-absorbed country, he will grasp the true sway of America, one that moves beyond threats to influence international standards and conduct. By ignoring this, Trump diminishes American power.