Trump’s election sends a dangerous signal to autocrats around the world

Expect to see more human rights violations from emboldened dictators.

Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump impersonators, Howard, left, and Dennis, right, (who only give their first name) stand side by side on a train to promote a music video they created in Hong Kong, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Vincent Yu
Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump impersonators, Howard, left, and Dennis, right, (who only give their first name) stand side by side on a train to promote a music video they created in Hong Kong, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Vincent Yu

President Donald Trump’s failure to commit to international human rights and his lack of a coherent foreign policy could have serious repercussions over the next four years. International observers fear that autocrats are already taking a cue from the new president’s apparent disregard for human rights — and they’re using it as cover to crack down in their own countries.

Trump’s dismissal of foreign policy norms has emboldened certain actors on the global stage, including Israel’s right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Trump’s appointment of a the right-wing figure David Friedman — who supports building illegal settlements on Palestinian land — as an ambassador to Israel broke with bipartisan precedent.

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“Beyond his extensive advocacy for Israeli far-right positions, including expanding West Bank settlements and even outright annexation of occupied territory, Friedman has directly funded and supported Beit El, a settlement outside Ramallah,” Daniel L. Byman, a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy, wrote in Brookings. “Thus, Trump’s pick effectively signals a rejection of the traditional U.S. positions against settlements and for a two-state solution.”

The Israeli government approved significant new settlement expansion in the West Bank on Tuesday; the Israeli government had likely been emboldened by Trump’s actions since elected, the New York Times reported.

“Strongman nationalism tells other countries they can do their own thing and that’s a problem for human rights.”

Issues like waterboarding, once a form of torture, have been brought back into public discussion by the current administration — and without sufficient clarity on where they stand. Trump’s pick for CIA director, Rep. Mike Pomepo (R-KS), initially ruled out waterboarding but then quickly seemed to change his mind.

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“It is not at all clear what the president thinks [about waterboarding],” Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick, an assistant professor at the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego, told ThinkProgress.

Trump’s authoritarian tendencies also send a dangerous message to leaders like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte.

“Strongman nationalism tells other countries they can do their own thing and that’s a problem for human rights,” Choi-Fitzpatrick said.

Duterte supports an extrajudicial drug war that has killed over 6,000 people, and the Philippines’ leader even claimed Trump verbally supported his initiative.

Countries like France, the Netherlands, Hungary, and the UK are dealing with their own surge in right wing populist support, buoyed in part by the same forces that propelled Trump into the White House. The ascension of nativist parties “is a huge problem for human rights movements and for human rights advocates the world over,” Choi-Fitzpatrick said.

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In addition to failing to emphasize human rights, Trump didn’t lay out clear foreign policy goals during his campaign. As a result, the international community is left speculating how the U.S. will react to global developments.

“One of the problems the U.S. now faces under Trump is a credibility gap to international commitments,” said Choi-Fitzpatrick. “When you see a new administration, you get a good sense of how things will move within a pretty stable universe of options, and one of the challenges with the Trump administration is it’s not clear what they are going to do. So, the punch line is, Trump is going back and forth and has mixed signals about how best to engage.”

The lack of clarity has been made worse by the fact that many of Trump’s top foreign policy advisers are unknown quantities on the national stage.

“More than any candidate in my memory, he has challenged basic foreign policy assumptions and dismissed the value of traditional expertise,” wrote Byman in Brookings. “Some of his Cabinet picks bring considerable experience to the job, but many are relative newcomers with little track record as policymakers.”