Authoritarian leaders exercise a strange and powerful attraction for President Trump. As his trip to Asia reminds us, a man who loves to bully people turns to mush — fawning smiles, effusive rhetoric — in the company of strongmen like Xi Jinping of China, Vladimir Putin of Russia and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines.
Perhaps he sees in them a reflection of the person he would like to be. Whatever the reason, there’s been nothing quite like Mr. Trump’s love affair with one-man rule since Spiro Agnew returned from a world tour in 1971 singing the praises of thuggish dictators like Lee Kuan Yew, Haile Selassie, Jomo Kenyatta, Mobutu Sese Seko and Gen. Francisco Franco.
Mr. Trump’s obsessive investment in personal relations may work for a real estate dealmaker. But the degree to which he has chosen to curry favor with some of the world’s most unsavory leaders, while lavishing far less attention on America’s democratic allies, hurts America’s credibility and, in the long run, may have dangerous repercussions.
In China, he congratulated Mr. Xi for securing a second term as ruler of an authoritarian regime that Mr. Trump had spent the 2016 campaign criticizing. He again absolved Mr. Putin of interfering in the United States election, despite the finding of American intelligence agencies that Moscow did extensive meddling. As for Mr. Duterte, Mr. Trump effused about their “great” relationship while saying nothing about the thousands of Filipinos who died in a campaign of extrajudicial killings as part of the Philippine president’s antidrug war. En route, he gave a verbal thumbs-up to the Saudi crown prince for arresting hundreds of senior officials and cementing control of the kingdom.
It’s not uncommon for American presidents to foster relations with strongmen. Serving the national interest often means working with leaders who are undemocratic, corrupt, adversarial or all three, and for decades there was no alternative to dealing with whoever had the top job in the Kremlin. People still talk about how naïve President George W. Bush was when he looked into Mr. Putin’s eyes in 2001 and declared the Russian president “trustworthy.” President Barack Obama stuck with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the democratically elected president of Turkey, long after Mr. Erdogan evolved into a dictator. The Chinese and Saudi leaders were favorites of President George H. W. Bush. President Richard Nixon assiduously cultivated China’s Mao Zedong, the shah of Iran and the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.
Still, whatever their strengths and weaknesses, these past presidents worked within a structure of longstanding alliances and, in varying degrees, espoused support for democratic values, including the rule of law and human rights, all the while trying to nudge the autocrats along a similar path. President George H. W. Bush and others encouraged democracy in Russia; President Bill Clinton did likewise in China and Peru; President George W. Bush did in Iraq and Afghanistan.