US President Donald Trump’s Helsinki press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin casts in stark relief his striking regard for authoritarian leaders. It is consistent with his systematic downgrading of the promotion of human rights and democracy, in a major departure from previous US presidents, both Republican and Democrat.
Since Jimmy Carter, successive administrations have struck some balance between pursuing US security and economic interests and promoting human rights. Generations of officials have promoted human rights not only for short-term strategic payoff but also for intrinsic reasons, with long-term strategic gains such as legitimising American power. During the Cold War, administrations recognised the soft-power value of human rights/democracy promotion in differentiating the US brand from that of communist regimes. Likewise, there was an awareness that silence on human rights abuses could damage long-term US interests.
From his inaugural speech onwards, Trump has deprioritised human rights concerns, as part of his ‘America first’ transactionalism and sovereignty focus. While human rights issues have occasionally broken through—Trump has sporadically responded to television footage of events such as the chemical weapons attacks in Syria—these are exceptions to his inclination against involvement in other states’ internal affairs.
Trump’s national security cabinet has so far paid scant attention to human rights, apart from US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley’s rhetorical focus. While Haley has spoken out on human rights violations in states such as Syria, Myanmar and Venezuela, there has been little policy follow-through, and she has recently withdrawn the US from the UN Human Rights Council, citing its failure to reform and anti-Israel bias. Administration officials have reversed Obama-era human rights decisions, often for strategic reasons, including embarking on fuller engagement with Thailand and dropping human rights conditions attached to arms sales to Bahrain.
It remains to be seen whether Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will view human rights through the prism of the values-based competition with China and Russia described in the US national security strategy and national defence strategy. There are some early signs that Pompeo might focus on human rights more than his predecessor did. Pompeo stressed the importance of human rights/democracy promotion at his confirmation hearing, for example, and released a statement critical of China on the 29th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. But even if Trump’s national security team were to move in this direction, it’s highly possible that Trump’s disregard for human rights would continue, accentuating an incoherent posture.
The administration’s tumult has enabled some human rights and democracy concerns to be driven by lower-level State Department activity, including at the embassy level and through legislated programs. American diplomats have spoken out about extra-judicial killing associated with President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug policy in the Philippines, for example, and about Cambodian government legislation constraining the opposition and freedom of expression.
There has also been some congressional activism in pushing a human rights agenda. For instance, 15 senators (seven Republicans and eight Democrats) signed an open bipartisan letter urging Trump to prioritise human rights and democracy, and Republican senators Marco Rubio, John McCain and Lindsey Graham have protested Egypt’s NGO-restricting legislation and called for the administration to withhold aid to Egypt.
But congressional pushback has been limited, and congressional Republicans have been reluctant to take on a mercurial president as they pursue big-ticket items such as tax cuts and increased defence spending.
At the same time as the administration has pulled back from human rights/democracy promotion and multilateral engagement, China and Russia and other states have grown more assertive in challenging democratic norms, both at home and globally. Earlier this year, China and Russia thwarted US efforts to have a Security Council briefing on Syrian human rights violations, and China was joined by other states on the Human Rights Council to pass a motion framing human rights as state-centric rather than universal.
Australia, a current Human Rights Council member, had supported American efforts to reform the council. But Canberra had also encouraged Washington to maintain influence by remaining on the council, and has continued to support reforming the council from within.
Australia’s regional human rights approach has been driven by the sensitivities of not wanting to be seen to preach to Asian states and not wanting to push the region towards China. Australia has made a pragmatic assessment of the security and economic benefits of diplomatic engagement with Southeast Asian states such as Myanmar and Thailand.
Canberra should continue to encourage the Trump foreign-policy team to flesh out its ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ strategy—which appears to have a human rights/democracy dimension—and continue to look for ways to contribute to that strategy, especially in infrastructure, energy and economic governance promotion. There’s also scope for Australia to strengthen its own promotion of human rights and governance in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. If it’s carefully designed to take account of geopolitical considerations and regional sensitivities, such an initiative could enhance Australia’s soft power and help support the rules-based regional order.