Trump’s Foreign-Affairs Hypocrisy Is an American Tradition

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In people, hypocrisy is usually a character flaw. For American foreign policy, hypocrisy can be a virtue. To see why, consider the debate surrounding the statement that President Donald Trump issued on the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi.

Rarely do such short presidential pronouncements generate such voluminous and passionate response. Trump’s statement clocks in at a mere 631 words and essentially reiterates his longstanding position on the issue, specifically his refusal to acknowledge that Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is probably responsible for ordering the killing and his contention that the U.S.-Saudi partnership is just too important to strain over the assassination of a journalist. 

Washington depends on Saudi Arabia not just to keep oil prices low, but to invest in the U.S., buy American arms and help fight terrorism and Iranian influence, Trump’s argument goes. And contrary to what U.S. intelligence agencies have reportedly concluded, Trump asserts, we may never know for sure whether MBS personally authorized this vicious murder. So why mess up a relationship that counts for so much in a dangerous world?

For critics, Trump’s statement highlights everything unsavory and deplorable about his presidency: His disdain for the analysis of his own intelligence community and foreign policy professionals, his affinity for authoritarian strongmen, his unabashedly transactional diplomacy, his indifference to violations of human rights and democratic values. Trump’s statement, these critics point out, implies that the U.S. will let authoritarian governments get away with murder if they are rich and powerful enough.

Yet for Trump’s supporters, the president’s statement is an inelegant but clear-eyed recognition of some hard realities: Namely, that the U.S. does need allies in a turbulent Middle East, and that it has long partnered with regimes that have committed far greater crimes than the killing of a single dissident.

From this perspective (and from the perspective of critics of the critics such as Glenn Greenwald), Trump’s statement simply dispenses with the moralistic rhetoric and appeals to universal values that America uses to cloak its policies, revealing the self-interested core of U.S. statecraft. By ceasing to pretend that the U.S. cares deeply about democratic values and human rights even as it partners with deeply repressive countries such as Saudi Arabia, Trump is cutting away the hypocrisy that often characterizes American diplomacy.

This view is not entirely wrong. There is undoubtedly a degree of mutual dependence in the U.S.-Saudi relationship, and Washington has long been willing to break with its principles in working with dictatorial allies. What this position misses, though, is that the sort of hypocrisy Trump is cutting away — the tendency to honor American values rhetorically, even while compromising them occasionally in practice — can actually be quite constructive.

Such hypocrisy has a distinguished lineage in U.S. foreign policy. America fought World War II on behalf of the four freedoms (freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom of speech, and freedom of worship) in cooperation with a totalitarian Soviet dictatorship that respected none of them. During the Cold War, officials constantly stressed the contrast between democracy and authoritarianism. Yet they also worked with Augusto Pinochet, Chiang Kai-Shek, and a clutch of dictators who were hardly champions of individual freedoms, while occasionally seeking to overturn democratically-elected governments that aligned themselves with the Soviet bloc.

More recently, Vice President Mike Pence has portrayed the U.S.-China competition as a clash between democratic freedoms and authoritarian repression, even as Washington seeks to contain Chinese influence by working with dictatorships in Vietnam and other countries.

Hypocrisy, some critics might therefore allege, runs like a red skein through the American Century. Yet this is not entirely a bad thing, for two reasons.  

First, in foreign policy as in so many things, hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. Anyone who has worked in foreign policy understands that the world is a messy place and that preventing a greater evil can require accepting a lesser one. Yet it is still vital that American leaders remind the country, and themselves, of the higher values to which the nation should generally adhere. In this sense, respect — even rhetorical respect — for American concepts of morality is a critical counterweight to occasionally amoral behavior. It forces us to remember that the latter should be the exception rather than the rule, and thereby helps motivate us to vindicate our best traditions over the long term even as we periodically compromise them along the way.

During World War II, Franklin Roosevelt touched on this point in explaining why he had no patience for those who criticized the four freedoms on grounds that they were unattainable. “If those people had lived a century and a half ago they would have sneered and said that the Declaration of Independence was utter piffle,” he said. “If they had lived nearly a thousand years ago they would have laughed uproariously at the ideals of Magna Carter. And if they had lived several thousand years ago they would have derided Moses when he came from the Mountain with the Ten Commandments.”

The alternative to keeping America’s moral values in view even as the U.S. pursued a morally impure foreign policy, FDR understood, was a foreign policy unmoored from any moral principles whatsoever.

Second, American hypocrisy is a check on the behavior of others as much as it is a check on the behavior of the nation itself. U.S. presidents who pay heed to democratic values and human rights — even if they do not always do so as consistently as one might like — serve notice to authoritarian governments around the world that there are limits to what America can tolerate in terms of violations of those rules. Talking up support for American ideals creates uncertainty in the minds of these governments about how far they can go in repressing their own population without earning the censure or enmity of the Washington.

Fear of that censure will not force authoritarian governments to become liberal democracies, but it may lead them to temper their repression at the margin. Conversely, when a president signals that he cares not a bit about democratic values and human rights, that he sees international affairs in almost purely amoral terms, he does indeed send the message that the world’s dictators can get away with almost anything they like so long as they are important enough to the U.S. He encourages autocrats to indulge their worst tendencies. This, too, has a marginal effect on the balance between freedom and repression — a thoroughly negative one.

It may be true, then, that Trump’s statement on Khashoggi is just an unsentimental portrayal of the hard-headed arguments that have justified American support for Saudi Arabia for decades. But his retreat from American idealism — and yes, American hypocrisy — will nonetheless come at a cost.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Most recently, he is the co-author of "The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order."

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