NEW YORK – The disappearance of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi has precipitated a new crisis in U.S.-Saudi relations. Yet that crisis has also revived a much older dilemma in American strategy: How to deal with allies that also happen to be morally abhorrent, even murderous, dictatorships.
The basic predicament has been around for over a century. As the United States established its dominance in the Western Hemisphere in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it often cooperated with local strongmen who could provide some semblance of stability. Throughout the Cold War, containing communism required working with partners that were far from morally pure — dictators who ruled key allies such as South Korea, Turkey, Portugal and Greece at various points, as well as a clutch of Latin American and Middle Eastern despots.
The rapid spread of democracy from the 1970s through the early 2000s eased this dilemma, by aligning the frontiers of freedom more closely with the frontiers of America’s European and Asia-Pacific alliances. Yet the problem has now returned, and not just in the Middle East, because of two factors.
The first is the so-called democratic recession that began around 2006, and which has subsequently weakened democracy in dozens of countries around the world. Illiberal and anti-democratic practices have taken hold in key NATO countries: Turkey, Poland and Hungary.
In the Asia-Pacific, one U.S. ally — Thailand — has been under military rule since 2014, while another — the Philippines — has reverted to a bloody form of illiberal democracy under President Rodrigo Duterte. In the Middle East, U.S. President George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda and the hopes of the Arab Spring have faded; authoritarianism and instability are again the status quo.
The challenge of handling these friendly authoritarians is greater because of the second trend: the resurgence of geopolitical revisionism. As hostile authoritarian powers — China, Russia and Iran — challenge existing regional orders across Eurasia, they are putting U.S. power and influence under pressure and sharpening the dilemmas America faces in handling its more autocratic allies. Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Philippines may be acting in deeply distasteful ways, but they occupy critical geostrategic real estate in today’s most important geopolitical competitions.
There have traditionally been two schools of thought on coping with this problem. One was expressed most forcefully by American academic Jeane Kirkpatrick, whose famous article “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” was published in 1979 and vaulted her to the forefront of U.S. policymaking during the Reagan years.
Kirkpatrick argued that insisting that authoritarian allies adhere to U.S. standards of political freedom and individual rights was an invitation to disaster. It would destabilize those regimes internally, raising the likelihood of a takeover by more radical and hostile forces. This, Kirkpatrick alleged, was just what had happened in Nicaragua and Iran in 1979, where U.S. pressure to respect human rights had weakened authoritarian allies against the revolutionaries who toppled them. Preserving a stable strategic environment in which the U.S. and its allied democracies could thrive, and aggressive dictatorships such as the Soviet Union could be contained, meant partnering with some friendly devils along the way.
The second school of thought, expressed most prominently by U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, George Shultz, held that this choice between interests and ideals was a false one. Supporting dictators was no guarantee of stability, because those regimes provoked hatred and discontent that could eventually erupt into revolution.
Even supposedly friendly dictators could prove dangerous and unpredictable, as the Argentine junta showed when it invaded the Falkland Islands in 1982 and triggered a war with the United Kingdom. And surely the U.S. — the world’s leading democracy — would be more secure and influential in a world populated more fully by other democracies. The U.S. could not promote democracy and confront authoritarians everywhere, Shultz acknowledged. But generally speaking, spreading human rights and democracy, while also holding friendly authoritarian regimes to account, was a geopolitical imperative as well as a moral one.
Shultz’s view won out in the Reagan administration, which played a critical supporting role in the triumph of democratic forces in countries from the Philippines and South Korea to El Salvador and Chile. Yet because democracy was spreading like wildfire in the 1980s, and because the Soviet threat was starting to fade, the choices were in many ways less difficult for U.S. policymakers than they are now. Today, Washington can usefully embrace insights from both schools of thought.
From the Kirkpatrick school comes the hard truth that the U.S. can’t afford a break with many of its authoritarian allies today. If holding the line against Chinese expansionism in the Asia-Pacific region seems hard now, just wait until the already-weak U.S. alliance with the Philippines falls apart. Putting relations with Turkey, Poland or Hungary into the deep freeze might be morally satisfying; it would also create more opportunities for Russian mischief on NATO’s eastern flank.
In the Middle East, the U.S.-Saudi partnership remains important for counterterrorism cooperation and as a bulwark against Iranian ambitions. Isolating Saudi Arabia might push Riyadh to deepen its relations with Moscow and Beijing. Iran, Russia and China are seeking to expand their influence by weakening the strength and cohesion of U.S. alliances: Washington should not do its rivals’ work for them.
Yet neither should America do what the Trump administration often seems inclined to do: Give its allies a green light to violate human rights and flout the rule of law. Doing so simply gives incentive for further misdeeds. It erodes U.S. moral standing by leaving Washington vulnerable to charges of selective morality and outright hypocrisy.
And as illiberalism spreads, it weakens the liberal ideological glue that helps bind the U.S. to its closest allies; it creates ideological affinities between Washington’s friends and its rivals (just look at the warm relationship between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hungary’s strongman, Viktor Orban); it raises the longer-term dangers of serious domestic instability and even revolution. One can hardly look at Turkey or Saudi Arabia today and wonder whether harsh, autocratic rule is not driving up the likelihood of debilitating internal strife.
The U.S. must therefore exact a cost, measured but real, on the illiberal actions of its allies. This could mean reducing — but not fully halting — arms sales, speaking out more strongly against repressive behavior, and perhaps even excluding quasi-authoritarian allies such as Hungary from NATO exercises. Also helpful would be quiet but consistent advocacy of respect for basic human rights in bilateral diplomatic discussions, and — where feasible — increased support for embattled democratic actors through institutions such as the National Endowment for Democracy.
These measures can be calibrated according to the specifics of the case and the degree of leverage Washington possesses: America can probably take a harder line with Poland, which has nowhere else to go, than it can with the Philippines, which has already been repositioning itself closer to Beijing.
Above all, the U.S. must avoid conveying its approval of or simple indifference to illiberal practices. Unfortunately, U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly done just this, by praising Duterte’s vicious drug war, by singling out a backsliding Poland for praise in major international speeches, by uncritically backing Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his power grab in Saudi Arabia, and by cultivating an air of presidential indifference to issues of human rights and democracy.
In fairness, the president’s comments that the U.S. would exact punishment on Saudi Arabia if it’s proved that Riyadh was responsible for Khashoggi’s disappearance were a good sign in this regard; his pre-emptive public refusal to even consider restricting U.S. arms sales, however, was a very bad one.
Striking the right balance in dealing with friendly dictators will always be difficult. But the U.S. risks compromising its ideals and its interests if it doesn’t even try.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His newest book is “American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump.”
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