Trump's Unsavory Friends: The U.S. Has to Partner With Despots


(Bloomberg View) -- From Eastern Europe to Southeast Asia, the U.S. increasingly finds itself working with some illiberal regimes in order to contain others. Consider:

  • Vietnam, an authoritarian, one-party state, recently hosted a U.S. aircraft carrier for the first time since the end of the Vietnam War, continuing a long-term expansion of defense ties between the two former enemies.
  • Poland, a backsliding, illiberal democracy, has become one of the cornerstones of Washington’s efforts to shore up NATO’s deterrence against an aggressive Russia.
  • Secretary of Defense James Mattis visited Oman earlier this month as part a broader program of working with an array of friendly authoritarian governments -- Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and others -- to roll back the influence of a theocratic, expansionist Iran.

Critics might deem it the height of hypocrisy that U.S. officials are developing closer ties with a rogue’s gallery of unsavory regimes just as they are warning about the dangers posed by revisionist dictatorships in China, Iran and Russia. In reality, this is mostly good diplomatic practice, and it draws on a long and fairly sophisticated tradition in U.S. statecraft.

During World War II, Franklin Roosevelt cooperated with one morally repugnant totalitarian government -- Stalin’s Soviet Union -- to defeat a Nazi regime that was even more aggressive and awful. “I can’t take communism nor can you,” FDR told his friend Joseph Davies, “but to cross this bridge I would hold hands with the Devil.”

The end of World War II put paid to that marriage of convenience, and the U.S. turned to containing the Soviet Union. It did so by constructing a broad “free world” coalition whose hard core was constituted by other liberal democracies -- but whose membership also included illiberal but generally pro-Western autocracies in countries from Portugal to Pakistan to South Korea.

The rationale for this approach was always cold-blooded and geopolitical at its core. Locked in intense competitions with aggressive adversaries, U.S. officials understood that it was simply impossible to defeat those threats while remaining morally pure as the driven snow. Henry Kissinger put this ethos most bluntly while running the State Department in the 1970s. “Anyone who wants to join a missionary organization should wait for the next Secretary of State,” he explained. “That’s not what we’re doing foreign policy for.”

Yet this approach reflected two other key insights about authoritarian rule and global politics. The first was that not all illiberal regimes are created equal; the second was that the U.S. would be better able to promote liberal reform -- at least in some cases -- by engaging friendly authoritarian regimes than by breaking with them altogether.

Regarding the first point, Americans have often made a distinction between what have been called “benign” and “malevolent” authoritarian regimes. Benign authoritarians treated their citizens badly, but they were nonetheless willing to live within and even help defend a stable and relatively liberal global order led by the U.S. and other democracies. Malevolent authoritarians fused harsh, even totalitarian, rule at home with an intense geopolitical hostility to the U.S. and the international system it anchored. The latter group of dictators was thus both a geopolitical and ideological enemy of the U.S.; the former shared enough common interests to make decent if distasteful partners.

This idea, in turn, related to a second insight: that cooperation with benign authoritarian powers could lay the groundwork for the eventual promotion of human rights and democracy. In a broad sense, this belief reflected the undeniable truth that preventing malevolent authoritarians from dominating the international environment was a fundamental precondition to creating a world in which any type of liberty could flourish. More narrowly, maintaining close relations with problematic regimes provided the U.S. with leverage that it could sometimes use to foster liberalization over time.

Not all U.S. policymakers subscribed to this approach; Kissinger himself was often skeptical of the idea that the United States should push anti-communist authoritarians to liberalize. And there were always cases -- from the Soviet Union during World War II to China in the 1980s -- when hopes of promoting liberal reform went wanting. But other American strategists understood this point, and they were occasionally able to put it into practice. During the 1980s, the Ronald Reagan administration used the influence provided by America’s security relationships to encourage the opening of political systems in countries such as South Korea, El Salvador and the Philippines.

Today, the Donald Trump administration appears to grasp one half of the venerable tradition. As the 2017 National Security Strategy shows, Trump’s advisers -- if not the president himself -- understand that Russia, China, and to a lesser extent Iran, are all countries that combine brutal governance at home with antipathy to the U.S.-led international order abroad. Accordingly, Trump’s representatives have sought to lock arms with more benign autocracies (as well as democratic actors) that can help hold the line. As one Defense Department official remarked at a conference in Washington earlier this month, this administration wants to be in business with any country that does not want to see China dominate the Western Pacific. Efforts to strengthen relations with illiberal governments from Poland to the U.A.E. bespeak a similar ethos in other regions. Some goals are so important that they justify moral compromises, and upholding the international system America has built over the generations is one of them.

Yet the Trump administration, and particularly the president, does not seem to grasp the second part of this tradition: the importance of working constructively to move problematic regimes toward greater liberalism. Quite the opposite, in fact: Trump has praised Rodrigo Duterte for his brutal campaign of extrajudicial executions in the Philippines and ostentatiously set aside human rights concerns in dealing with the Saudis and other Middle Eastern autocrats. During his trip to Poland in mid-2017, Trump heaped praise on a Polish government that was taking determined steps to roll back individual rights and civil liberties. And throughout his presidency, Trump has seemed to gravitate more toward authoritarians than democrats.

This is a mistake, even if it is rooted in geopolitical calculation rather than simply in the president’s personal preference for strongmen. The U.S. cannot simply throw away critical geopolitical relationships over concerns about political illiberalism, but neither should it preemptively throw away the influence it possesses by ignoring or even encouraging that illiberalism.

After all, the ultimate goal of cooperating with benign authoritarian regimes is to preserve an international order that is safe for liberty and democracy. Washington should not lose sight of that long-term emphasis on liberty, even as it tends, in the near term, to the demands of maintaining order.

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

Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His latest book is "American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump."

To contact the author of this story: Hal Brands at

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