Dealing with Dictators
Trump Comes Under Fire For Duterte Invite

After a “very friendly” conversation with President Trump, Philippine strongman Rodrigo Duterte has been extended a White House invitation—and human rights activists and partisans are up in arms. The New York Times:

Now, the administration is bracing for an avalanche of criticism from human rights groups. Two senior officials said they expected the State Department and the National Security Council, both of which were caught off guard by the invitation, to raise objections internally. […]

“By essentially endorsing Duterte’s murderous war on drugs, Trump is now morally complicit in future killings,” said John Sifton, the Asia advocacy director of Human Rights Watch. “Although the traits of his personality likely make it impossible, Trump should be ashamed of himself.”

Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on Twitter, “We are watching in real time as the American human rights bully pulpit disintegrates into ash.”

The critics are right that Duterte’s human rights record is abysmal: his drug crackdown has killed an estimated 6,000 people, many of them summarily and extrajudicially executed on the slightest suspicions. That said, using the “bully pulpit” to denounce countries for their human rights failings may warm the hearts of Wilsonian human rights crusaders, but such tactics are rarely effective in changing behavior.

Thailand provides a case in point: after the 2014 coup, the Obama administration publicly chided Thailand for its democratic backsliding, held up security assistance, and refused to send a high-level diplomat there for two years. The result was not a rebirth of Thai democracy or a reconsideration of the junta’s policies, but a growing resentment toward the United States, which only left Bangkok more determined to court new allies in Russia and China.

Indeed, the Trump administration seems to have figured this out: in addition to Duterte, Trump also extended invitations to the leaders of Thailand and Singapore, both countries that the White House judges have felt estranged or neglected in recent years. At a time when China is trying to peel off U.S. allies in Asia, these kinds of overtures to shore up floundering relationships should be encouraged, even if our allies’ human rights records are less than stellar.

Human rights are not something that U.S. policy can or should ignore entirely; the Wilsonian tradition is a deep-rooted one for good reason. But sometimes the best way for the U.S. to advance those interests is through high-level engagement behind closed doors, rather than the public shows of outrage and isolation that our moral crusaders demand. Let’s hope that the Trump administration does raise those concerns with Duterte in private, while seeking to repair ties with an estranged ally that is increasingly leaning Beijing’s way.

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