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Is President Trump's 'America First' Policy Emboldening Autocrats?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

President Trump tells the AP today that Saudi Arabia being blamed for missing journalist Jamal Khashoggi is another case of, quote, "guilty until proven innocent." Trump says the Saudi crown prince totally denied any knowledge of what happened and promised a full investigation. Trump separately has suggested rogue killers might be to blame.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

To understand how autocratic countries like Saudi Arabia interpret these remarks, we called up Tamara Cofman Wittes. She served at the State Department under President Obama and is now with Brookings. She says Trump is following through on a position he took more than a year ago.

TAMARA COFMAN WITTES: On his first foreign trip when he went to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, he said explicitly, we're not here to lecture; we're not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be or how to worship. And that statement sets aside decades worth of bipartisan American commitments as well as the commitment of a range of Western democracies to international human rights law.

SHAPIRO: Beyond Saudi Arabia, do you see a link between President Trump's "America First" transaction-based approach to international affairs and the actions of dictators overseas?

WITTES: I think if I were a dictator, especially one with a decent relationship with Washington, a co-operative partnership with Washington, and I heard the American president say that he's not here to lecture me, I would certainly take that as an understanding that no matter what I might do at home, I shouldn't expect any direct consequences in my relationship with Washington.

If you take, for example, Philippine President Duterte, who has picked up President Trump's phraseology about fake news and is also engaged in a raft of extrajudicial killings of political opponents as well as of drug dealers, there's a lot of reason to be concerned that when President Trump goes on television and is asked about Putin's attempted murder of journalists and says, well, we kill people, too, that that's going to lead someone like President Duterte to think that he can get away with doing the same thing.

SHAPIRO: There were lots of instances during the Obama administration where the president condemned the actions of foreign leaders, whether that was Vladimir Putin in Russia or Bashar al-Assad in Syria and it didn't do much to deter them. So is it really possible to say that this is happening more because President Trump is in office?

WITTES: I think there are both direct and indirect ways in which President Trump's blase attitude about human rights and democracy translates into behavior abroad. The first of course is if dictators feel like they have a green light from the American president. And that's pretty rare. But the United States doesn't always criticize directly or one-on-one. Sometimes it works together with other Western governments, and they all do a demarche together. Or they issue simultaneous statements so that no one government gets the backlash all by itself. And when the Trump administration takes the United States out of that coalition, it deters other Western governments from speaking up as well.

SHAPIRO: Oh, so you're saying it's not just that the U.S. is giving an implicit green light to these dictators, but it's undermining the international alliances that used to speak with one strong voice against the actions of those leaders.

WITTES: Absolutely. It is creating a more permissive environment by deterring other governments from speaking up. And there's another way in which the withdrawal of that strong American voice on behalf of human rights and democracy makes a difference, which is that all over the world, you have civil society leaders pressing their own government for transparency and accountability.

You have political opposition leaders demanding a change in autocratic societies. And they do their work in the knowledge that other governments out there in the world that are committed to human rights are looking out for them a little bit and will speak up if something happens to them. So when that voice from Washington is stilled, all of those vulnerable people, the ones who rely the most on this international human rights coalition, are deterred from doing their work.

SHAPIRO: Tamara Cofman Wittes was deputy assistant secretary of state for near Eastern affairs during the Obama administration, and she's now with the Brookings Institution. Thanks very much.

WITTES: My pleasure, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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