Proving himself to be a better diplomat overseas than at home, President Trump concluded his 12-day tour of Asia with little controversy and much support from the Asian media.
For those familiar with the president’s hyperbolic boasts and incoherent tweets as substitutes for traditional international diplomacy, Trump’s Asia tour offered some relief. Aside from the koi carp incident and the “short and fat” tweet to North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Trump largely avoided personal blunders. He also demonstrated surprising political consistency, emphasizing bilateral trade agreements in the name of the “Indo-Pacific dream” and confirming U.S. intentions to coerce Asian allies into supporting North Korean denuclearization.
Yet what was most significant about Trump’s Asia tour was not his usual remarks on trade or North Korea, but what he left unsaid: human rights were not on his political agenda.
Though often criticized for imperialist tendencies and imposing liberal values on other states, the U.S. has long been the world’s most vocal defender of human rights and democratic government. But under Trump, we are witnessing a rapid change.
Shaking hands with President Jinping, the leader of an authoritarian regime in China; dining with Vietnam’s President Quang as the country’s criminal justice system is corrupted by political interference; and continuing to deny Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election: Trump’s tour was undermined by painful contradiction and irony, sullying the historic image of America as a protector of human rights.
Most shocking of all was Trump’s meeting with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte. Since taking office in June 2016, Duterte has ordered (and publicly praised) the extrajudicial killing of suspected drug dealers and drug users. Human Rights Watch has been documenting the Philippine government’s human rights violations, including the unlawful murders of 1,790 citizens and the so-called “investigations” of 3,001 further deaths between January 1 and June 15, 2016 alone. But Duterte’s inhumane action does not end at the terror of citizens by an abusive police force: the denial of rights to indigenous people and the violation of reproductive rights add to the administration’s growing list of controversial government activity.
During their 40-minute meeting, Trump and Duterte did not have a significant discussion on human rights. Surprisingly, it was Duterte himself who raised the issue of the drug menace in his country—an indication, perhaps, of a Philippine president emboldened in his ongoing drug war. By failing to confront or condemn Duterte, and by celebrating their “great relationship,” Trump has indirectly legitimized the leader’s militant campaign. It’s a sign not only of Trump’s weak personal conscience, but also of his unwillingness to commit America to the active promotion of human rights.
The need for the U.S. to make a stand in the Philippines is more urgent than ever, as the international community has failed to sufficiently respond to Duterte’s violations. A recent Universal Periodic Review by the U.N. has proven inconsequential, as the Philippines continues to undermine U.N. recommendations by manipulating the public’s perception of Duterte’s administration. For example, following the review, the Philippines media misreported that the U.N. “overwhelmingly adopted Manila’s human rights report card.” The international community’s failure to adequately respond indicates both apathy and unwillingness to take decisive action as the Philippines continues to bypass the fundamental obligations of a U.N. member state.
While some may have greeted Trump’s relative consistency in Asia as a welcome reprieve from the usual barrage of insults, the president has demonstrated that he cannot act in balance: If not loud, Trump is silent. By refusing to speak up for the welfare and rights of the Philippine population, Trump risks empowering the Philippine government, and others alike, in the abuse of human rights.
And such silence may also raise questions about the future of the Western democratic model itself. With the loudest advocate for human rights and democracy silent, we may continue to witness an irreversible degradation of Western values in Asia and across the globe.