When Donald Trump visited Saudi Arabia shortly after he took office as U.S. president, he participated in a sword dance with his hosts in Riyadh. It was a strange sight to see the American president gyrating alongside Saudis holding ceremonial swords in a scene that was broadcast around the world. Since then, the ties between Trump and Saudi Arabia’s powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, have only gotten stronger.
Similarly, Trump has also developed stronger relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Through numerous statements and meetings, the American president has conveyed the message that Putin is ultimately a friend, like all of his friends in the international community.
Trump’s ties with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have declined a bit recently over a dispute that led the United States to impose sanctions on Turkey, but at the NATO summit meeting this year, Erdogan, for all his authoritarian tendencies, received a firm handshake from Trump, who praised the Turkish leader for “doing the right thing.”
Trump’s relationships with authoritarian leaders fits in with his approach to foreign policy, which is “America first.” The world’s major superpower is no longer interested in taking responsibility for finding solutions to the world’s problems, and it doesn’t really matter whether its new friends are suspected of crimes.
So for example, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who is a critic of the Saudi regime, entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last week to deal with divorce documents and has never been seen again. According to Turkish sources, police in Turkey suspect that he was murdered at the consulate and his body secretly removed, and that the murder had been planned in advance.
Khashoggi was known for his criticism of the Saudi royal family and wrote a column in this vein in The Washington Post. The murder of Khashoggi, who had more than 1.5 million Twitter followers, on foreign soil – if that turns out to be the case – conveys a particularly threatening message.
Another shocking attack targeted Sergei Skripal, the former Russian spy who was poisoned in England with nerve gas designed for military use. Britain has accused high-level Russian officials of responsibility for the assassination attempt and identified two suspects from Russian intelligence services as having carried it out. In response, Russia has not only denied responsibility but had the two suspects interviewed on RT television. It doesn’t appear that anyone in the Kremlin cares much what the world thinks.
Erodogan has also been persecuting his opponents beyond his country’s borders. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu recently declared that Turkish authorities have repatriated more than 100 members from the organization of exiled Turkish opposition figure Fethullah Gulen. According to reports and eyewitness accounts, the repatriations from places such as Kosovo, Azerbaijan, Ukraine and Gabon have at times included street abduction and torture. Turkish media have published pictures of those repatriated in restraints, not knowing their fate.
These aren’t the first times a repressive regime has poisoned a double agent or carried out a hit against a human rights activist, and things of this kind have also happened on the watch of presidents who have taken more resolute positions on America’s global role. Russian intelligence agent Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with radioactive material in Britain during President George W. Bush’s second term, for example.
But now such things are happening in the open, without any real effort to conceal them. This is what a shake-up in the global balance of power looks like.
Trump has sustained considerable criticism for his isolationist foreign policy, particularly from liberals who have been shocked by the warm attitude he has shown Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. But in fairness, it should be remembered that the United States has interfered in the internal politics of other countries for decades, and not always with positive results, to put it mildly.
Even if Trump’s summit with the North Korean dictator doesn’t lead to nuclear disarmament, one can say with fair certainty that it helped push the world farther away from nuclear confrontation of the kind that it appeared we were headed towards.
Trump’s demand that Europe step up its efforts to defend against Russia could make the balance of power more balanced. It’s possible that Trump’s approach will prevent the United States from sending troops across the ocean and spare the world from reprising the Afghan war, but Trump’s overlooking of his friends’ actions sends the message to oppressive regimes that they have a freer hand in acting in the world as they wish.
When Trump proudly declares at the United Nations that the International Criminal Court has no jurisdiction over the United States, it is also telling the world’s tyrants that their actions have no consequences. And as long as the president of the United State continues with this approach, the prospects increase that we will see more journalists disappear, defectors poisoned, and opposition activists abducted. Not in secret, but openly, and without shame.
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