The Trump Administration Has Killed Human Rights Diplomacy

Under the Trump Administration, the American commitment to human rights around the world is basically dead.

President Trump may be conducting a trade war against China, and he has spoken out many times about what he contends is China’s unfair trade policies and its alleged currency manipulation, but there’s one area where he has been silent:

In the past week, President Donald Trump has described China’s trade practices as “an anchor on us,” saying Beijing is “killing us” and wants to “hurt” U.S. jobs.

Yet as Chinese officials increasingly hint at a potentially violent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong, Trump has remained largely silent.

he bifurcated approach is just the latest example of what former U.S. officials and analysts say are Trump’s transactional approach to foreign policy and comfort with authoritarian rule. Even though the president’s own aides are sending a more forceful message on situations like the Hong Kong protests, they add, it’s a message that will inevitably get lost amid Trump’s comments — or lack thereof.

“Trump is telling [Chinese President] Xi Jinping very clearly: ‘Do whatever you want in Hong Kong. All I care about is a trade deal,'” argued Michael Fuchs, a former State Department official in the Obama administration. What Trump aides say means “nothing when the president is making his own position very clear again and again and again.”

Trump’s defenders argue his comments are either misinterpreted or not considered in full.

His supporters point out that Trump, when asked about Hong Kong in early July, said the protesters are “looking for democracy. And I think most people want democracy.”

But Trump later drew flak for saying Xi had “acted responsibly” in handling the protests, for calling the demonstrations “riots” and for saying the issue is “between Hong Kong and China.” While Trump’s supporters said the president was trying to praise Xi for not yet cracking down on the protesters, while also implying the movement won’t succeed if it turns violent, China’s state-run media hyped up his description of the Hong Kong protests as “riots.”


House Speaker Nancy Pelosi issued a statement praising the protesters, saying their “dreams of freedom, justice and democracy can never be extinguished by injustice and intimidation.” The California Democrat also promised congressional action on legislation aimed at penalizing Chinese officials who infringe on Hong Kong’s autonomy.
Trump didn’t comment.

It’s unclear whether Trump would support the proposed legislation, which has bipartisan support. It could all depend on where things stand with the trade deal, the topic that animates Trump most when it comes to China. According to the Financial Times, Trump has told Xi, whom he frequently praises in public, that his administration would limit its commentary on Hong Kong to push forward the trade talks.

“It’s just hard to escape a core element of the president’s foreign policy is transactions, and if something isn’t part of what he wants, he’s willing to sacrifice it,” said Scott Kennedy, a China specialist with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

All of this is largely consistent with Trump Administration foreign policy since he the beginning of his Administration. With the exception of Iran and Venezuela, the Administration has been remarkably quiet in the face of rampant human rights violations by some of the most repressive regimes in the world. Russia’s Vladimir Putin arrests and murders dissidents and reporters and the Trump Administration says nothing while Trump dismisses the charges as irrelevant. Egypt’s Mohammed al-Sisi does the same and the Trump Administration says nothing. Saudi Arabia conducts genocide in Yemen and murders a Permanent Resident American reporter and Saudi dissident in its consulate in Istanbul and the Trump Administration says nothing. China represses the Uyghur Muslims and the Trump Administration says nothing. North Korea Kim Jong Un represses a nation of tens of millions, murders political opponents in the most gruesome ways possible, and tortures an American citizen to the point where he ends up in an irreversible coma before inevitably dying and the Trump Administration says nothing while the President himself dismisses any talk of Kim’s human rights abuses.

This is a marked deterioration from previous American foreign policy which placed as much importance on human rights issues as it did on advancing and protecting American national interests. Granted, we weren’t always consistent in this regard, especially during the Cold War when the competition with the Soviet Union all too often overshadowed human rights concerns and caused us to look the other way while leaders in places like Central America, Iran, and elsewhere repressed their citizens. By and large, though, the American commitment to human rights and the Rule of Law gave us a moral authority that allowed us to call the Soviets out for their mistreatment of dissidents and Soviet Jews and to criticize other nations around the world when they deserve to be criticized.

Over the course of fewer than three years, the Trump Administration has effectively destroyed that credibility. The main reason for that is that it is clear that the President himself largely doesn’t care about human rights issues except to the extent that it works to target regimes that the President doesn’t like. If you aren’t on that list, something that is largely true of the nations that happen to be among the worst human rights violators in the world, then the President and his Administration are more than happy to give you a pass. The next President, whether they take office in 2021 or 2025, is going to have their work cut out for them if they want to restore American credibility in this area and it’s unclear if they’ll be able to repair all of the damage that this President has done to American credibility in this area.

FILED UNDER: China, Donald Trump, Iran, National Security, North Korea, Politicians, Russia, US Politics,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. michael reynolds says:

    It’s going to take time to repair the damage Trump has done to this country. And of course #MoscowMitch will do all he can to stop any attempt to repair our position in the world. If you could put a dollar value on the damage done to American power and prestige the cost would be in the trillions.

  2. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @michael reynolds:

    It’s going to take time to repair the damage Trump has done to this country.

    Can we? I’m beginning to doubt it. Even if he get’s voted out in 2020…the stain of Trumpism will remain. Can we bleach out the entire system? Reset everything? De-program the Cult#45 members?

  3. michael reynolds says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:
    I’m less concerned with #Cult45 (average age: circling the drain) than with the fact that the post WW2 architecture has been broken. George Marshall (and others, of course) built the modern, western world. The conditions that allowed us to impose that international order no longer exist. With a notable assist from Brexit we have destroyed our own legacy. It’s like watching Michelangelo take a sledgehammer to his David. And the results are likely to be similar: rubble.

  4. Kathy says:

    According to the Financial Times, Trump has told Xi, whom he frequently praises in public, that his administration would limit its commentary on Hong Kong to push forward the trade talks.

    Isn’t that like giving away concessions in return for nothing at all?

    One can cite China’s contempt for intellectual property rights and stealing of technology all one wants, and few people will give a damn. They do a sensible Achilles and think “they’re not stealing my property or my technology.” So there’s not much popular support for beating China over the head, even if some big donors might stir.

    On the other hand, tell people China is mistreating minorities, or trying to quash liberties in Hong Kong, and you can get lots of people stirred up. You can get them to boycott some Chinese goods (no question of boycotting all, not if you want to live in the 21st century), to support tariffs on Chinese goods (though that would still be bad idea), to boycott travel to China, to boycott companies that do business with China (and there are LOTS of them, and I mean, like TONS of them), and then, even if you’re an amoral slug interested in a largely symbolic trade “victory,” offer Xi to ease up on the human rights talk in return for trade concessions.

    Seriously, Dennison’s not even good at bad policies.

  5. Sleeping Dog says:

    @michael reynolds:
    While some FP policies can be restored, the reality is that the next president, regardless of party, will need to forge new policies and relationships that can provide peace in the world and work toward meeting the needs of the world’s people.

    Looking at the aspiring Dems for Prez, Warren and Boot-edge-edge are smart enough and Harris and Booker as well. Biden and Bernie, no, both are too locked into the past. The other issue is, who will be the president’s partners. Xi and Putin, absolutely not, but unfortunate that Xi won’t be as China is a necessary partner. Marcon and Trudeau, likely, but that’s about it. The rest are nationalists or blithering idiots. (I’m looking at you Boris and Jeremy.)

    If Trump is re-elected who in the Repug’s would take on the challenge? Most likely the next Repug presidential candidate will be Tiny light.

  6. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @michael reynolds:
    But it’s so much more than just foreign policy. Today they are announcing that they are weakening the Endangered Species Act. They’ve weakened the EPA. The list goes on. Then there are the courts. I don’t see how we even get back to the 2016 status quo within our lifetimes.

  7. CSK says:

    Not to get all psychoanalytic here, but I wonder to what extent Trump’s adulation of thug dictators reflects his relationship with his own father.

  8. Gustopher says:

    Flights in and out of Hong Kong have been cancelled, and there are reports and video in my Twitfeed of troops massing in Shenzhen (but not originating from sources I know and trust) — so we might get to see a test of this non-human-rights diplomacy.

    I suspect that Chia would not be able to contain footage and reporting of a crackdown, and the Trump administration would be facing a lot of pressure to do something.

  9. Ken_L says:

    I’m sure many people around the world welcome Trump’s lack of cant, even as they resent or mock his policies and actions. Fairly or not, there has been a widespread belief for decades that America’s behavior in international affairs was fundamentally inconsistent with the fine words its leaders spruiked. It’s a relief, for example, to see Washington abandon any pretence at being a disinterested mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, and become an unqualified Israel apologist instead. It’s what America has been for a long time, so aligning the rhetoric with the reality makes it easier for everyone else to do the same without offending the empire.