Global Pairings, Rethinking America

America’s Anti-Democracy Message to the World

How President Trump’s irrepressible love for illiberal nations from Saudi Arabia to Russia hollows out the U.S. standing in the world.

Credit: a katz Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • Like Nixon, Trump, facing a lot of political trouble at home, embarked on an overseas trip.
  • The message sent by the Trump trip to Saudi further undermines the US’ moral vision and standing in the world.
  • When it comes to Saudi Arabia, President Trump has also changed his rhetoric -- as he did with China.
  • We will have associated costs for the Trump presidency sooner or later.

It is worth recalling that U.S. President Richard Nixon, like Trump now, traveled to Saudi Arabia and other Middle East countries while embroiled in a major domestic scandal. In Nixon’s case, it was the Watergate crisis almost 33 years ago.

President Trump, facing a lot of political trouble and investigations at home, similarly embarked on an overseas trip as the U.S. chief diplomat, with Saudi Arabia as his first stop. In Trump’s case, this was more unprecedented as it was his maiden voyage as American president.

Trump’s very poor choice

As much as Trump evidently enjoyed himself with the Saudi royal family, the choice of the kingdom as such an elevated travel destination was a poor choice indeed – a departure from visiting a democratic or allied nation.

The White House deliberately sent the wrong message regarding the essence of American values. They are religious freedom, democracy, and liberty. Saudi Arabia, if anything, is the perfect antithesis to all that – a country featuring a full enmeshing of religion and state, no democracy and essentially no liberty.

The message sent by the Trump trip thus further undermines the United States’ founding vision, moral mission, and current standing in the world.

Deals, not principles

President Trump and his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, are both former businessmen and hence transactional leaders.

Accordingly, the Trump White House is filled with political operatives and extreme ideologues who are a hodgepodge of short-term tacticians neither fully immersed in American history nor in international affairs. Their reactions to previous policies and American values appear to measure in pecuniary terms.

The White House’s selection of the Saudi kingdom is a myopic reaction to compensate Trump’s anti-Islamic rhetoric and the disastrous Muslim-banning immigration policy.

It is downright incomprehensible if one has any moral compass as to how – of all possible Muslim countries – Egypt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia would be exempted from that ban. Those are the very countries whose human rights violations have even been intensified more recently—and more importantly, the Trump family has business deals.

Freedom through prosperity?

This is all increasingly puzzling as U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sent his Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2016 to Congress.

In his recent speech at the State Department, the former Exxon Mobil chief executive argued that American values must take a back seat while national security and commercial interests drive President Trump’s “America First” strategy with economic prosperity.

He maintains an American “foreign policy projected with a strong ability to enforce the protection of our freedoms with a strong military.”

For him, “we can only do that with economic prosperity” – as the Saudis, Russians and Chinese do. For them, money sanctifies all shady means while sacrificing human dignity.

This sort of economic determinism with assorted other elements of “America First” plan – like banning and deporting immigrants – is a dramatic departure from America’s Jeffersonian foreign policy tradition and “the shining city upon the hill.”

The “Bigly” two-tongued

When it comes to Saudi Arabia, President Trump has also changed his rhetoric – as he did with China. Trump called Saudi Arabia “the world’s biggest funder of terrorism. Saudi Arabia funnels our petrodollars, our very own money, to fund the terrorists that seek to destroy our people while the Saudis rely on us to protect them.”

But it is his – shockingly honest – explanation that should stump us all. Trump said, “Saudi Arabia – and I get along great with all of them. They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.”

His commercial wheeling and dealing with the Saudi royal family go back to the 1990s when Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Alsaud helped “bail” him out when New York’s Plaza Hotel and his Atlantic City casinos were struggling.

The Trump Card: “They bailed me out, I bail them in”?

Unlike Saudi Arabia, Russia, and China, the United States was created by an enlightened band of Founding Fathers with a global vision for the new republic.

Welcoming immigrants from every corner of the globe, America has become the world and the world is America. Until Trump, the Jeffersonian ideals that are embedded in the Statue of Liberty – a gift by the French – and Ellis Island in New York Harbor were the bedrock of American foreign policy.

It is this Jeffersonian inspiration that is the “invisible attraction,” which makes America stronger and more prosperous – not “a strong military,” as Secretary of State Tillerson has argued.

Trump’s modus operandi: Brawn, not brain

Most conservatives and others in the Trump team get it. The best and most logical rationale was put forward by President Trump’s Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who had insightfully remarked, “If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.”

The deal-making, transactional Trump White House probably has no idea whatsoever that Thomas Jefferson was the first Secretary of State in the George Washington administration – and, American values enshrined in our founding documents.

Nevertheless, indifference to Jeffersonian values and American foreign policy tradition, which made America a great globally democratic nation, will have associated costs for the Trump presidency sooner or later. Could that be more damaging than what President Nixon did?

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About Patrick Mendis

Patrick Mendis is a Rajawali senior fellow of the Kennedy School of Government’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University.

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