Trump may struggle with a group handshake, but he's far more flexible dealing with brutal autocrats

Mr Trump stressed 'America First', but failed to talk about human rights

Monday 13 November 2017 19:10
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Donald Trump baffled by group handshake with fellow leaders at ASEAN summit

Donald Trump was clearly in some difficultly as he sought to manoeuvre those 71-year-old wrists to pull off the so-called "Asean-way handshake".

Apparently a tradition of such events, the move calls for world leaders to both cross and join arms in a sign of unity. A photographer captured the US President grimacing before he finally managed to grasp hold of Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte to his left, and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc to his right.

Yet, as Mr Trump wraps up his 11-day tour to Asia, the longest by a US president for several decades, many have been struck by his ready flexibility to deal with leaders who carry with them questionable human rights records.

Mr Duterte was hosting the summit in the Philippines, so a degree of diplomacy was clearly needed. But did Mr Trump need to say he had a “great relationship” with a man who has allegedly orchestrated a war against drug users that has led to thousands of extra-judicial killings? The White House said Mr Trump briefly raised the issue of human rights when the leaders met, but Mr Duterte’s spokesman was adamant he had not.

By contrast, when Barack Obama raised the issue, the Philippine leader called the US leader “a son of whore”.

Similarly, human rights did not appear to come up during Mr Trump’s conversation with the Vietnamese leader. When he met Chinese President Xi Jinping, Mr Trump played a video of his granddaughter singing in Mandarin and told the Chinese leader his “people were very proud of him”.

Mr Trump did not mention human rights to Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, despite concerns about mounting majoritarianism in the world’s second most populous country. The US President tripped over his shoe laces to avoid criticising Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, over Russia’s alleged meddling in the 2016 election.

“Every time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that’,” Mr Trump told reporters on Air Force One. “And I believe, I really believe, that when he tells me that, he means it.”

And even though more than 500,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled what the UN has called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” inside Burma, nobody appeared to have pushed the issue with Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

It would be wrong to draw too black-and-white a distinction between this US administration and previous ones. US governments have always elected to use the issue of human rights when it has suited them and ignored them when it has not.

While Mr Obama would press various issues with some countries, he similarly oversaw a massive expansion of America’s use of unmanned drones in places such as Pakistan, that frequently resulted in the deaths of civilians and children. He all but refused to discuss the programme and did all he could to shield it from transparency.

Yet, if the issue of human rights was raised by previous administrations in a way that was self-serving and even cynical, at least it was raised.

It may have been the US President, ever mindful of supporters back home, was more concerned about stressing his “America First” vision for trade and geopolitics. “We are not going to let the United States be taken advantage of anymore,” he said in a speech at the start of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

Messages matter. In choosing to remain silent on human rights, Mr Trump has highlighted again how little concerned he is about America’s position at the centre of global affairs. Time and again, from his views on Nato, nuclear proliferation and climate change, Donald Trump has shown he is willing to forego US leadership in these areas.

Those suspicious of the US may welcome this. But Mr Trump’s ceding of such ground, simply means other countries, many of them authoritarian nations such as China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, are seeking to fill the vacuum. Mr Trump must learn that for a true leader, sometimes uncomfortable arm-twisting cannot be avoided.

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