Rethinking U.S. Relations With Dictators

Russia's President Vladimir Putin toasts as he takes part in a ceremony of receiving ambassadors' credentials in the Kremlin
Russia's President Vladimir Putin toasts as he takes part in a ceremony of receiving ambassadors' credentials in the Kremlin in Moscow, on September 26, 2012. Putin said today world powers should draw lessons from their mistakes and stop interfering in crisis-hit nations of North Africa and the Middle East. AFP PHOTO / POOL/ ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO/AFP/GettyImages)

The current strain in U.S. relations with Russia sums up the challenges of dealing with authoritarian rulers. They vigorously object to any criticism of their human rights record, yet even when such criticism is muted, they may still resist cooperation with the United States on major security issues. The Obama administration has resisted moves by Congress to sanction human rights abusers in Russia, but President Vladimir Putin continues to intensify his crackdown on civil society and block international efforts to stop mass atrocities in Syria. The time has come for the United States to take a fresh look at its relations with Russia and with other dictatorships around the world.

U.S. relations with authoritarian regimes often focus on a trade-off between security and economic interests on the one hand and human rights and democracy on the other. By accepting this bargain, which dictators often proffer, U.S. policymakers tend to miss opportunities to raise human rights issues and thereby contribute to both the expansion of democracy and U.S. interests in the long term.

A group of 22 leading human rights organizations and experts, including Freedom House, have urged the next U.S. president to look past the false choice between values and interests and review U.S. relationships with governments that violate human rights. We believe that the United States should stop underestimating, or refusing to use, its power and moral capital to keep human rights on the agenda.

Recent history amply demonstrates how the United States can raise human rights concerns while pursuing security interests at the same time. In the 1980s, U.S. pressure at critical moments on allied governments in the Philippines, Chile, Taiwan, and South Korea assisted their transitions from dictatorship to democracy. The United States also kept human rights on the agenda in its negotiations with the Soviet Union and still made progress in nuclear arms reductions. U.S. opposition to totalitarian ideology and support for dissidents contributed to the fall of communism.

These lessons of history seem to have been lost in the Middle East and elsewhere. Decades of cozy relations with Arab dictators blinded U.S. policymakers to the groundswell of disaffection that eventually launched the 2011 Arab uprisings, and did lasting damage to U.S. credibility in the eyes of Arab revolutionaries. By clinging to the mistaken belief that soft-peddling on human rights was the price to pay for influence and stability in the region, the United States ultimately obtained neither.

Similarly short-sighted U.S. policy is still evident in various places around the world. The current administration resumed arms sales to Bahrain even as the Bahraini government carried on with its brutal crackdown on protests and dragged its feet on promised reform. Aid to the repressive government of Uzbekistan was resumed in return for supply routes to Afghanistan. And the United States has stayed largely silent about human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia while collaborating with their regimes on counterterrorism, even though this collaboration serves the interests of all parties.

U.S. reluctance to criticize China's human rights abuses is equally misguided. It is motivated by a fear that China will retaliate by harming what are in fact shared U.S.-Chinese interests, for instance in stability on the Korean Peninsula and a mutually beneficial economic relationship.

When the United States downplays human rights concerns, it is at best buying short-term advantages at the expense of long-term interests and influence. There is often no need to make this sacrifice. Dictatorships are inherently unstable, because they lack the renewal mechanisms of an electoral democracy, and U.S. support for autocratic leaders invariably causes resentment among those who ultimately replace them. For example, suspicions of U.S. motives in Latin America have lingered for decades after the United States stopped trying to prop up anticommunist caudillos and military juntas.

U.S. interests are best served by pushing for reform and building ties with the political opposition and civil society, including possible future leaders. These ties can lay the groundwork for continued influence and facilitate smooth transitions to democracy.

The time has come to formally review U.S. relations with authoritarian regimes around the globe and identify ways to support human rights and democracy activists while continuing cooperation on common security and economic interests. Senior U.S. officials and diplomats should regularly engage with human rights defenders and democracy activists who struggle against repression. They should also conduct vigorous public diplomacy to communicate the values of freedom directly to people living under authoritarian rule.

In this way, the United States can both stay true to its values and pursue its interests, as over time, U.S. interests lie in the advance of human rights and democracy abroad.

This blog is part of the series "Ten Critical Human Rights Challenges for the Next President," sponsored by Freedom House. The series will feature renowned experts writing on some of the top human rights issues that should be addressed by the presidential candidates and the next administration. As the candidates participate in policy debates we look forward to a lively discussion of these and other important foreign affairs issues facing our country. For the full series please visit the Freedom at Issue Blog.