Donald Trump is the first president in modern history who barely pays lip service to the promotion of universal human rights. On his grand tour of Asia, he stopped in Vietnam, where he failed to press the regime on what Human Rights Watch calls a “dire” lack of individual freedoms. Senator John McCain tweeted: “@POTUS in #Danang & no mention of human rights – Sad.” Instead, Trump prioritized trade and lauded the Vietnamese president for doing “an outstanding job.” Then Trump was off to Manila, where Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, is accused of fighting the drug trade through a campaign of extrajudicial killings. Trump claimed he had a “great relationship” with Duterte, and according to a Philippine spokesman, never mentioned human rights at all.
Sure, there’s usually a gap, and sometimes an enormous chasm, between U.S. ideals and the reality of American foreign policy. And over the decades, the centrality of human rights in U.S. diplomacy has waxed and waned. Washington is selective in its outrage: fixating on the sins of its enemies, and forgiving the failings of its friends. At times of grave threat, Americans have sometimes trampled over human rights, interning Japanese-Americans and carpet-bombing enemy civilians in World War II, for example. After cutting a deal with a Vichy French regime in North Africa, Franklin Roosevelt quoted a Balkan proverb: “My children, you are permitted in time of great danger to walk with the Devil until you have crossed the bridge.”