Dealing with Dictators


On June 19th, the Center for the National Interest hosted a panel discussion entitled “Dealing with Dictators.” Speakers included Mark Lagon, Chief Policy Officer of the Friends of the Fight against AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, a former president of Freedom House, and a former Ambassador-at-Large leading the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking-in-Persons, and Paul Saunders, the Executive Director of the Center for the National Interest and a former State Department senior advisor in the George W. Bush administration. Paula J. Dobriansky, a former Under Secretary of State and a Senior Fellow of the Future Diplomacy Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, moderated. The event was broadcast live on The National Interest’s Facebook page and can be found here. A summary of the event can be found below.

Dealing with Dictators

Two former senior U.S. State Department officials agreed that America’s values are an important element of U.S. foreign policy, though they disagreed on the best way for Washington to go about incorporating those values into its policymaking, particularly when it comes to working with authoritarian governments.

According to Saunders, there are five main reasons why the United States needs to work with authoritarian regimes. First, Washington faces serious foreign policy and national security challenges that necessitate at times international cooperation with such governments. For example, he argued, the U.S. wants to be able to talk to China about the threat posed by the North Korean nuclear program and likewise to talk to Philippines about the rise of China. Second, he noted, Washington has limited leverage in trying to compel authoritarian regimes to adopt American values. Their highest priority is to stay in power, he said. Third, the United States “inevitably applies its principles differently in different cases” in its foreign policy. When Washington takes a strong stance on principles while at the same time compromising those principles, “we [ the U.S.] open ourselves up to charges of hypocrisy and undermine our ability to achieve our objectives,” according to Saunders. Fourth, “whenever we [the U.S.] define an area of disagreement as a matter of principle rather than an area of interest, it’s inherently much more difficult for either side to compromise.” Interests, he argued, are much more fluid. Finally, “we have a tendency to focus on the immediate at the expense of the long term.” This approach may compromise our ability to achieve a moral outcome in the long run.

Saunders proposed four considerations for policymakers when working with authoritarian regimes.  First, he argued, we should not pretend that our values do not matter and do not need to praise or defend these governments. Americans care about the behavior of authoritarian regimes and these concerns constrain Washington’s relations with authoritarian governments, he said. Consequently, “governments should understand that their own behavior creates limitations to what the American government can deliver.” Second, Saunders urged Washington to not “disregard the opposition,” noting that they may provide U.S. officials with support or information. Third, and conversely, he cautioned that some opposition groups may not necessarily support American interests or values despite what they say. Finally, Saunders pressed the U.S. government to think about its “message and tone.” The messaging, he argued, should be focused on results, not moralism.

Saunders contended that South Korea and Taiwan illustrate successful examples of collaboration, as they have evolved into democracies and are solid American partners following decades of engagement.

Lagon cautioned against what he described as “cozy” relationships with authoritarian regimes. Lagon acknowledged “the human rights case” against working with authoritarian governments, but focused on “interest-based arguments” against cooperating too closely with them. He raised the “pressure-cooker argument,” suggesting that authoritarian regimes often foster enemies and extremists, citing Egypt as an example. Lagon questioned whether authoritarian allies are as critical to the United States’ national interests as often thought. He underscored this point by asking, for example, how useful Russia will be in Syria. He also noted that blind trust of authoritarian states means that “we fool ourselves” in the end by not properly calculating the motives of those governments. The credibility of the United States both domestically and internationally was another key issue for Lagon. U.S. power depends on more than military and economic might, he stated, and failure to stand up for American values undermines U.S. leadership. Lagon cited Washington’s relationship with Saudi Arabia as an example of how America’s cooperation with authoritarian regimes has failed. Despite the United States’ strong relationship with Saudi Arabia, he argued, “we [the U.S.] have not yet fully addressed how they have subsidized extremism around the world.”

Lagon referred to India as an example of a regional power that the U.S. should continue to work with, though Washington should also be aware of the Hindu nationalist movement’s alleged violations of civil liberties that “may come to bite us [the U.S.] in the rear” if the U.S. turns a blind eye to them. Lagon countered Saunders’ use of South Korea and Taiwan as examples by arguing that it was the democracy-promotion measures of the Reagan administration that pushed these nations to liberalize, thereby strengthening his argument that the U.S. should apply similar pressure to other authoritarian allies. Lagon emphasized that in foreign policy, the United States should be an exemplar. In order to be a promoter, he argued, you need to be an exemplar. Saunders supported the concept of “leading by example,” maintaining that America’s national identity is wrapped up in its values and argued that this can be more effective than pressure.

Lagon provided a few suggestions in how to deal with authoritarian regimes as well. First, dialogue should be maintained with autocratic regimes. Second, the U.S. should not seek regime change through military force, but added that “you may need to have it as a last, last resort.” Third, the U.S. needs to publicly raise awareness of human rights violations as it pressures authoritarian regimes worldwide and incentivizes them to find ways to save face by potentially instituting reforms. Saunders urged caution in framing U.S. policies and messages to promote democracy to ensure that American actions produce the best long-term results.