‘Principled realism’ sacrificing human rights, democracy in ‘value-neutral transactions’?


‘Dirty Duterte’

Does a foreign policy of “principled realism” necessarily entail sidelining human rights concerns and offering few critiques of authoritarian leaders’ records on democracy, the rule of law and protecting essential freedoms?

“Will there be a Trump human rights policy, or a blunt realpolitik approach that places human rights and democracy at—or outside—the margins of American foreign policy?” asks Council on Foreign Relations analyst Elliott Abrams.

The apparent indulgence and endorsement of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s human rights violations suggests that the administration is “prioritizing value-neutral transactions—in this case, apparently: I’ll give you a green light on the drug war in exchange for your support on North Korea—over the promotion of democracy and human rights,” says The Atlantic’s Uri Friedman.

“Balancing ideals and interests are inescapable for any president. The U.S. government is not an NGO,” notes Abrams, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy. But successful balancing requires a fair weighting for the value of America’s association with freedom, he writes for Politico:

When it came to supporting right-wing dictatorships in order to avoid communist takeovers, it was President John F. Kennedy who concluded, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” With this lesson in mind, Ronald Reagan helped escort Augusto Pinochet out of the presidency in Chile. When it came to fighting terrorism, it was George W. Bush who said that “in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty” and noted, “Successful societies protect freedom with the consistent and impartial rule of law.”

The relegation of democracy and human rights in funding for foreign assistance is also prompting concern among decision-makers and opinion-formers.

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, expressed concern that the United States was on a path to abandon “our global role as a champion for freedom, democracy and the rule of law.”

Imperative to support civil society

“The White House is obligated to provide Congress its budget request but Congress ultimately has the power of the purse,” said South Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. “This budget is very troubling when it comes to democracy funding for countries in Latin America. It is imperative for the United States to continue to support civil society and human rights activists in Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua.”

Efforts to counter violent extremism and jihadist militancy could also suffer from cuts in humanitarian assistance, global health funding and development aid, according to members of Congress.

“You can’t win the war without soft power,” said Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who oversees State Department funding on the Appropriations Committee.

History confirms that such cuts are strategically myopic and damaging to US interests, notes former secretary of state Colin Powell.

“Many had assumed the Cold War’s end would allow us to retreat from the world, but cuts that may have looked logical at the time came back to haunt us as tensions rose in the Middle East, Africa, the Korean Peninsula and elsewhere,” he writes for The New York Times. “Confronting such challenges requires not just a military that is second to none, but also well-resourced, effective and empowered diplomats and aid workers.”

His concerns are echoed by non-governmental groups like Freedom House, the pro-democracy and human rights watchdog.

“Unfortunately, the 30 percent cuts proposed to democracy support will undermine American interests,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, Freedom House president. “Drastically cutting democracy funding and channeling it all through accounts that have different objectives will represent a major retreat from America’s core values, harm the credibility of United States leadership in the world, and ultimately weaken America’s security and economic growth.”

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