Engaging with authoritarian leaders doesn’t have to mean endorsing them. And it’s better than isolating them.
Our last two presidents have traveled to Saudi Arabia and genuflected before its leader. Both visits sparked outrage in the United States. After all, Prince Mohammed bin Salman is an absolute monarch who tolerates no dissent and casually orders critics dismembered or publicly beheaded.
Presidents Trump and Biden also extended their hands to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt, whose military-backed government is known for torture, mass trials, and assassinations. Trump called him “my favorite dictator.” That meant a lot from someone who by his own account “fell in love” with the tyrannical President Kim Jong Un of North Korea. Trump acknowledged that Kim is “a rough guy” but called him “very talented” and said he “wants a lot of good things.”
Scenes like these seem repugnant in their hypocrisy. The United States poses as the great defender of global democracy while our leaders cozy up to democracy’s most fervent enemies. Isn’t it awful?
Not necessarily. Stigmatizing dictators, refusing to deal with them, and pushing them into isolation sounds like the moral course, but it often ends up undermining national interest without improving human rights anywhere. America’s problem is not that our presidents cozy up to authoritarians abroad, but that they don’t do it often enough. We need more engagement with distasteful leaders, not less.
When asked why Biden refused to invite the leaders of Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua to this year’s Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, the White House press secretary replied, “We just don’t believe dictators should be invited. . . . The president will stand by his principle.” Then she executed a dazzling pirouette by asserting that Biden was meeting the Saudi prince because if the president “determines that it’s in the interest of the United States to engage with a foreign leader and that such an engagement can deliver results, then he’ll do so.”
President Trump offered another version of the same doubletalk. He proclaimed a sensible approach: “Anybody who wants to come in — dictators, it’s OK, come on in — whatever is good for the United States.” But he often practiced the opposite, lashing out against Cuba and Iran rather than seeking to engage their leaders.
In our country and in most others, foreign policy is a constant balance between morality and expedience. Leaders may want to act decently, but they only do so when it serves their country’s interest. What distinguishes American leaders is their reluctance to admit this evident truth. We take the holier-than-thou pose of an unstained innocent who refuses to be soiled by contact with criminals, but then we embrace some of those very criminals. Biden, Trump, and other American leaders should drop the pretense. Moral superiority doesn’t count for much in the world, and in any case the United States can hardly claim it.
There may be good reasons to deal with the Saudi prince while shunning the president of Iran. Arguing that the difference between them is respect for human rights, however, stretches credibility. We would be better off proclaiming our true policy without subterfuge: We deal with murderous tyrants but reserve the right to choose which ones.
For much of the 20th century, the United States supported harsh dictatorships in Latin America and beyond. During World War II we allied with Stalin despite knowing that he was responsible for immense crimes. President Nixon negotiated a historic arms agreement with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev while Brezhnev was sending weapons to Vietnam that were killing American soldiers every day. In behaving this way, the United States is not unlike other countries that seek influence beyond their borders. All find occasions to deal with leaders they consider rivals or enemies.
Meeting and negotiating with dictators, however, should not mean endorsing them. President Reagan, for example, had his own reasons for maintaining good ties with the genocidal leaders of Guatemala and Indonesia. Welcoming them effusively at the White House, however, and calling the Guatemalan “a man of great personal integrity” and the Indonesian “a senior statesman” was over-the-top revolting. President Obama did a better job when he emerged from a summit in Cuba. He kept his praise narrow: “President Castro, I want to thank you for the courtesy and the spirit of openness that you’ve shown during our talks.” That was enough.
Honest engagement with some foreign leaders on our “dictator” list might make the world a safer place. Given the combative mood in Washington these days, that’s highly unlikely. We might at least, though, drop the pretense that we shun those leaders because we never deal with dictators. That has never been America’s policy, it isn’t today, and it shouldn’t be. Let’s admit it.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.