What we witnessed in Singapore this week was certainly unique, and not in a good way. The leader of the free world has traditionally tried to avoid shaking hands with murderous, autocrats who operate oppressive and impoverished client states. But President Donald Trump and his fellow Republicans had one objective for his summit with Kim Jong Un: a narrowly-tailored agreement to defuse an imminent threat, even if it meant aiding and legitimizing a criminal regime.
Skeptics of this effort — and this president, generally — contend any summit that did not address Pyongyang’s human rights abuses would be a moral failure. But in this regard, Trump appears to be following closely in the footsteps of his predecessor, who seemed to think diplomatic wins outweighed potential humanitarian losses.
Between the chummy photo ops and effusive praise, Trump has done more for the North Korean regime than the any U.S. president over the past quarter century.
Kim must be pleased with himself. Between the chummy photo ops and effusive praise, Trump has done more for the North Korean regime than the any U.S. president over the past quarter century. In return, Trump said the two nations now have a mutually agreed “framework” to pursue “denuclearization” down the road at some point. North Korea promised to dismantle a missile engine-testing site, though not exactly in writing. It also offered to facilitate the repatriation of the remains of American soldiers who died in the Korean War. But that’s about it; the product of three months of preparatory work.
In exchange for these modest concessions, Trump promised to halt joint military exercises with the Republic of South Korea — exercises he called “provocative” and “war games” echoing the propagandistic language North Korean state media uses to describe America’s defensive posture. He committed the U.S. and the DPRK to further bilateral negotiations, where everything from economic assistance to a U.S. embassy in Pyongyang to perhaps even a drawdown of U.S. troops on the peninsula will be on the table.
Most importantly, the summit itself was a concession to this regime. And the North Korean dictator milked it for all it was worth.
Kim Jong Un, the warden of a prison in which 200,000 people and their families are held hostage, was treated like a rock star in Singapore. Kim, the man who reportedly ordered the murder of his half-brother, uncle, and ex-girlfriend, among many others, took smiling selfies with Singaporean officials. Kim, the man who impoverishes, extorts, and tortures his chronically malnourished and parasite-riddled population, was called “funny,” “smart,” “a great negotiator” who “loves his people” by the American president. Indeed, Trump said the meeting was “my honor.”
Critics jumped on the president for putting North Korea’s pipsqueak despot on a pedestal, and for good reason. “Kim’s gulags, public executions, planned starvation, are legitimized on the world stage,” wrote Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy. According to Democratic strategist Brent Budowsky, Trump “literally and figuratively let Kim Jong-un get away with murder.” “[W]hat’s at stake is not just warheads,” New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof observed, “but also human lives.”
But Donald Trump is hardly the first president to de-prioritize human rights considerations in negotiations with foreign despots.
But Donald Trump is hardly the first president to de-prioritize human rights considerations in negotiations with foreign despots. That is not because, as Princeton University Professor Gary Bass uncharitably claimed, Trump “makes no effort to disguise how little he cares about human rights.” Barack Obama, too, put human rights on the backburner — not because he didn’t care about the issue but because he and his acolytes mistakenly believed that domestic liberalization would be a natural consequence of integration into the community of nations.
Prior to 1977, human rights concerns were not a central pillar of American foreign policy. Jimmy Carter’s team made it one, although that decision was not pure altruism. “I will not hide the fact that I thought there was some instrumental utility in our pursuit of human rights vis-à-vis the Soviet Union,” Carter’s national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski later said. Raising human rights issues, he added, was a tool of statecraft that isolated Moscow and catalyzed internal dissent.
Subsequent presidents of both parties adopted this ideological approach to foreign affairs because it was both diplomatically valuable and morally superior. More importantly, it helps Western negotiators from succumbing to the diplomatic equivalent of Stockholm syndrome.
Westerners who engage in high-risk negotiations with rogue regimes tend to become invested in the political stability of the regime with which they are negotiating. If it becomes unstable, negotiations may fall apart, and the successor government may be even worse. To press issues like human rights might weaken our interlocutor’s domestic political position, paving the way for the rise of nefarious, ill-defined “hardliners,” who are forever plotting in the wings. Better to keep quiet, the logic goes, especially if the magic of globalization is going to improve the human rights situation eventually anyway.
This is a fallacy, and it is one for which the Obama administration fell hard.
Obama chose to ignore the fact that Moscow had invaded and carved up Georgia mere months before he sent a letter to the Kremlin making overtures of friendship. That letter suggested that the U.S. would scuttle a President George W. Bush-era deal to provide defensive munitions to the Czech Republic and Poland in exchange for Russia’s help in securing a nuclear deal with Iran. The backdrop against which the “reset” in relations with Russia occurred was the systematic oppression and occasional murder of journalists and the subversion of the electoral process. That same imperative led Obama to essentially look the other way when Iran crushed the youthful 2009 Green Revolution in the streets and tried to subvert sanctions Congress imposed on the Islamic Republic.
Similarly, Barack Obama took a hands-off approach when Nicolas Maduro’s regime violently put down a potential revolution in the streets of Venezuela in 2014. The administration imposed new travel restrictions and sanctions on Venezuelan officials — but only after the threat to Maduro had been quashed. Obama also allowed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to cross his “red line,” blamed his inaction on Congress, and allowed a genocidal civil war and the worst refugee crisis of this century to destabilize Europe and the Middle East.
All this, in the words of Obama’s former advisor Fred Hof, in service to the “appeasement” of Iran. And when the former president unilaterally restored normal relations with Cuba, he made a point of not making that gift conditional upon any domestic reforms. In fact, Cuba cracked down on domestic dissent in advance of Obama’s visit and excluded dissident Cubans from events that included the American president.
Today, Trump is walking right back into the same trap — albeit with the tacit support of many of Obama’s most vocal critics.
Obama and his team convinced themselves that the intersecting patchwork of institutions that make up the international environment would have a moderating effect on abusive regimes. But that was hubris. Today, Trump is walking right back into the same trap — albeit with the tacit support of many of Obama’s most vocal critics. Conservatives who called Obama weak and expressed shock that he would trust vicious Cuban, Iranian or North Korean officials are now calling Trump’s summit with Kim “historic” and “world-changing.” There is even talk of a Nobel Peace Prize.
The truth is Trump, like Obama, doesn’t want human rights considerations getting in the way of a negotiated settlement to the crisis on the Korean peninsula — or a celebratory press conference. Both presidents call their deference to despots and autocrats realpolitik, but in truth it is weakness masquerading as practicality.
Donald Trump deserves condemnation for de-emphasizing human rights concerns in his meeting with Kim. His critics are right to call out his callousness. But we must also not forget that Trump’s actions are actually part of a larger and concerning modern trend to sideline human rights as a key element of U.S. foreign policy.
Noah Rothman is the associate editor of Commentary Magazine.