Foreign affairs is always an ethics-gray zone, with complex “ends justify the means” trade-offs amid cultural clashes and uncomfortable alliances are unavoidable. President Trump has apparently decided that the nation’s alliance with Saudi Arabia is more important than taking a hard moral-ethical stand regarding what the CIA has determined was a premeditated murder committed by a member of the Saudi ruling family against a journalist. In foreign policy, such trade-offs are the norm rather than the exception, “Everybody does it” is the operative rationalization because, for centuries, every country does do it. It’s not ethical. It’s practical. The American news media is making this episode special because a) it involves a journalist, so their interests are skewed and b) it is President Trump, and everything he does must be condemned to further the aims of the resistance.
President Trump has long viewed foreign policy as a series of business deals, stripped of values and idealism. But his 633-word statement on Tuesday about the brutal killing of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi showed the extent to which he believes that raw, mercantilist calculations should guide the United States’ decisions about the Middle East and the wider world.
Mr. Trump made clear that he sees alliances as transactional, based on which foreign partners buy the most weapons. American jobs outweigh American values. And all countries act abhorrently, so an American president should never hold friends to different standards than enemies.
Tuesday’s message could become something of a blueprint for foreign leaders — a guide to how they might increase their standing in the eyes of the American president as well as how far they can go in crushing domestic critics without raising American ire.
The question of how far the U.S. should go in pursuing its own interests while excusing unethical or immoral acts by foreign governments is an enduring one the stretches at least back to the United States alliance with Stalin in World War II. Outside of the fact that it involves a journalist, however, the Trump “guide,” even stated in deliberately pejorative terms, seems to me to vary not one bit from the standards used by previous administrations, including the Obama Administration. China…Cuba…Iran,,,and yes, the Saudis, who have overseen state-sanctioned brutality and human rights outrages affecting whole classes of people, not just one journalist, for a long as anyone can remember.
Trump’s “new blueprint,” it seems to me, varies from the old blueprint not one bit. Whether the old blue-print is necessary or defensive is another issue.