Above: President Trump and King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud sign a Joint Strategic Vision Statement in Ryiadh, on Saturday
“America is a sovereign nation and our first priority is always the safety and security of our citizens. We are not here to lecture—we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership — based on shared interests and values — to pursue a better future for us all.”
– President Donald J. Trump in Saudi Arabia, May 21, 2017
For a president who is not known for his oratory skills, his speech in this week in Saudi Arabia sounded strikingly orthodox. Drafted by Steven Miller, – one of the architects of the legally challenged travel ban and champion of a focused concept of American authoritarianism, it seems that the gravity of this speech kept his typical tone muted. The White House was more careful with its language than a speech given at one of its election-like rallies. However, despite its orthodox syntax, President Trump’s words in Riyadh were nonetheless a strong departure from American norms. President Trump ensured his favor among the Saudi monarchy, despite previous statements about the world’s Muslim community writ-large, sometimes even taking shots at the monarchy itself. He ensured this favor at the expense of a long-standing tacit policy that the United States would like Saudi Arabia to improve its record on human rights.
The President’s foreign policy has been difficult define in the context of history given its unorthodoxy. One read of the Trump Doctrine could be a hybrid of two times in the history of American foreign policy. In one way, Trump’s foreign policy harkens to the isolationism of 19th century America, where it was active on its periphery, but did not follow Europe into its complicated entanglements like the Napoleonic or Crimean Wars. Aspects of this isolationist strategy seem to be working in tandem with tenants from America’s Cold War policies, when we looked to strategic countries, mostly in the global south, as for allies against communism, no matter their record on human rights. This blended cynicism towards world affairs is at the heart of “America First”, yet its flaws are slowly chipping away an American foreign policy narrative that has been carefully crafted but not perfectly implemented for decades and across administrations of both parties.
So few things in international affairs work in absolutes, but human rights may be the rare exception. Rarely does a policymaker or commentator reference the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) – but a large number of nations ratified it 1948 (although the United States was not one of them). The document has no enforcement mechanism, causing realists around the world to label it a nice gesture, but nothing more. But in international affairs, sometimes bedrock deals like this can be used as useful reference points, and we can see its language rhyming with a large portion of contemporary Western foreign policies.
We can find so many blatant human rights violators today when held up to the language of the UDHR. Qatar is a violator of Article 4, which states that “no one shall be held in slavery or servitude.” Russia and its regional government in Chechnya is endeavoring to violate every article of UDHR of article violations with their ongoing systemic violence towards gay men. The modern day list of rights violators is long and depressing, and the subject is often a tightrope to walk when it comes to relations with the West. By pressuring Saudi Arabia on human rights, the West certainly runs the risk of destabilizing one of the most potent powder kegs in the region – a country that is at the center of contemporary Wahhabism and exports the radical ideology through mosques across the Muslim world. But, by getting dictatorships to start to care about the economics of human rights, the Western world can slowly bring cooperative partners into the fold, while simultaneously creating a more diverse and lucrative worldwide middle class.
Barack Obama too went to Saudi Arabia, met their king, and signed arms deals; however, the Obama Administration was not afraid to call out the country on its human rights record. Western countries have not put the ease of human rights abusers’ sleep at the top of their concessions cards when previously striking deals with such countries, and proved that friends are fine, enemies are concerning, but frenemies can still be productive. If President Trump would like to maintain the standing of the United States as a thought leader in the Western world, he would be well served to be more nuanced on these affairs. This does not mean that he needs to cite the long list of Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations to make a statement to their leadership about human rights. Sometimes muted apolitical actions can be just as effective, for example, when Queen Elizabeth II drove then crown Prince Abdullah around the grounds of her estate in her Land Rover when women cannot drive in Saudi Arabia
Putting human rights as an issue up for negotiation when conducting America’s affairs abroad may seem like a logical thing to do in Riyadh but the President may find that it will create difficulties with allies later. The President may have sounded polished in Riyadh, but that does not mean his policies were any more thoughtful than they have been.
Charles Johnson is the Editor-in-Chief of Ramen IR. His writings primarily focus on Eurasia and the NATO alliance. He graduated with an MA in Russian and Eurasian Studies from Johns Hopkins University SAIS, and a BA in History and International Relations from Boise State University. He also served as a Volunteer in the Republic of Georgia with the US Peace Corps. Charles has also worked in economic affairs with the US State Department and on NATO Policy with the US Department of Defense. His Twitter is @
Photo by the White House and is Public Domain