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Dan Vallone: Trump has made a habit of appeasing thuggish leaders rather than defending democracy

  • President Donald Trump toasts with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte during a gala dinner in Manila, Philippines on Nov. 12. AP



For the Monitor
Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Today it is not an iron curtain but a red carpet that marks authoritarians’ ascendancy across the globe.

In contrast to the vigorous defense of democracy and human rights that has long characterized American leadership, the defining feature of President Donald Trump’s recent 12-day Asia tour was his eagerness to embrace dictatorial leaders, provided they welcomed him with lavish parades and festivities. Such a retreat from global leadership harms American interests and sets the stage for future crises as authoritarianism grows stronger across the world.

The threat posed by today’s dictators and would-be dictators is nearly as great as in 1946, when Winston Churchill gave notice to America that Central and Eastern Europe were falling under the veiled fist of the Soviet Union. Yet unlike during the Cold War, when America rallied to lead the free world in defending democratic institutions, however imperfectly, today’s repressive regimes advance unchallenged.

In China, where President Xi Jinping has consolidated power to a degree not seen in decades, President Trump was effusive in his praise, describing the “incredibly warm” feelings he has for President Xi and complimenting him as “a very special man.” Given such language it is not surprising President Trump conceded to the Chinese in refusing to allow the press to ask questions following a joint appearance.

In the Philippines, President Trump went even further, exclaiming the “great relationship” he has with President Rodrigo Duterte – a man who has endorsed extrajudicial killings in his country’s fight against drug trafficking. President Trump also said nothing when Duterte, at one point during a meeting, pointed to the press and called them “spies.”

Finally, President Trump closed his trip to Asia by showing support for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assertions that Russia did not interfere with the 2016 election, saying “every time he (Putin) sees me, he says ‘I didn’t do that,’ and I believe, I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it.”

Though he later walked back this statement, President Trump’s refusal to confront Putin for attacking our country epitomizes his preference for appeasing thuggish leaders over aggressively defending democracy.

The silencing of America’s moral voice must be viewed in tandem with President Trump’s hollowing out of the State Department. Currently 300 senior positions remain unfilled, 48 of 188 ambassadorships are vacant, and the American Foreign Service Association, which represents America’s diplomats, estimates only 100 new foreign service officers will join the department in 2018, down from 366 in 2016.

Alarm over the condition of the State Department recently prompted Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and John McCain to send a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson expressing concerns that “America’s diplomatic power is being weakened internally as complex, global crises are growing externally.” This intentional and systematic reduction of our diplomatic capacity both reflects and drives President Trump’s unwillingness to stand up to undemocratic leaders.

Flattered by despots and disinterested in aspects of American power that lack tanks, jets, or missiles, President Trump shows no appreciation for the critical role America’s soft power plays in our overall national security.

President Trump compounds the situation by depriving his administration, and our country, of a State Department with the resources needed to make the case for why America is made safer and stronger when we hold other world leaders accountable for upholding democratic norms and fundamental human rights.

This dynamic was clearly on display throughout the Asia tour, but its implications extend across the globe.

In Germany, where the far-right Alternative for Deutschland party recently won seats in parliament for the first time, Angela Merkel failed to create a governing coalition and there may be new elections in the spring.

In Poland, Independence Day celebrations were dominated by a march of extremist groups eerily reminiscent of the white nationalist assembly that gathered in Charlottesville this past summer; as reported by the Atlantic, the Polish groups chanted “Pure Poland, White Poland” and carried signs saying, “Europe will be white or uninhabited.”

In Syria, America has agreed to allow Russia to lead efforts to resolve the civil war and set the post-war conditions, cementing the dictatorial rule of Bashar al-Assad and expanding Putin’s influence in the middle east.

If we do not meet and master such developments with our diplomatic and political capabilities, we will be compelled to turn to our military power in the not-too-distant future. The challenge for American leadership now is to win the battle for ideas driving the global shift toward authoritarianism.

Yet as evidenced by his Asia tour, President Trump is not up to this challenge. Nor does he appear interested in revising his approach – just prior to his trip, President Trump told reporters that he is “the only one that matters” when it comes to foreign policy.

Those in influence need to disabuse President Trump of this notion. It is the easiest thing for dictators to roll out a red carpet for President Trump when it leads inexorably towards a world where America remains silent and inert in the face of tyranny, repression and abuse.

(Dan Vallone is a West Point graduate who served six years on active duty as an infantry officer. He lives in Concord.)