For Trump, a Focus on U.S. Interests and a Disdain for Moralizing
WASHINGTON — As the world recoiled at the televised images of lifeless children in the latest atrocity in Syria’s savage civil war on Tuesday, the White House issued a statement expressing outrage just as any White House presumably would.
But where other presidents might have used the moment to call for the departure of Syria’s authoritarian leader, Bashar al-Assad, President Trump’s spokesman dismissed the notion as impractical because it would not happen. “We would look like, to some degree, rather silly not acknowledging the political realities that exist in Syria,” said the spokesman, Sean Spicer.
Mr. Trump has dispensed with what he considers pointless moralizing and preachy naïveté. He has taken foreign policy to its most realpolitik moment in generations, playing down issues of human rights or democracy that animated his predecessors, including Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. His “America First” approach focuses not on how other nations treat their people but on what they can do for the United States.
The past week has showcased the emerging philosophy. Even before Tuesday’s brutal chemical weapons attack in Syria, the Trump administration had said that pushing out Mr. Assad, Syria’s president, was not a priority, reversing Mr. Obama’s position. On Monday, Mr. Trump welcomed Egypt’s authoritarian leader, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, to the White House with no public mention of the thousands of political opponents imprisoned there. On Thursday, Mr. Trump will host China’s Communist president, Xi Jinping, in Florida at his Mar-a-Lago estate, where trade and security will overshadow domestic repression.
“He seems to have a view that he’s the president of the United States and it’s the job of the president of the United States to protect the interests of the American people — and the interests of the American people come ahead of the interests of citizens of other countries,” said Paul J. Saunders, the executive director of the Center for the National Interest in Washington. “We’ll see how that turns into operational policy, or if it does, but that certainly is the point of view that he articulates.”
But the president’s view has stirred concern among foreign policy specialists in both parties. Representative Randy Hultgren, Republican of Illinois and a chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, said he was “concerned at the muted attention the administration has given so far on human rights.”
“I know President Trump wants America to remain strong,” he added by email on Tuesday. “We remain strong when our values are upheld around the world, and when leaders understand we are serious when it comes to defending human rights across any border. We must speak truth to power.”
Mr. Trump’s statement on Tuesday called the Syria chemical attack “reprehensible” and “intolerable,” but blamed Mr. Obama as much as Mr. Assad. “These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution,” he said. “President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a ‘red line’ against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing.”
The statement overlooked the fact that Mr. Trump himself urged Mr. Obama not to strike Syria when Mr. Assad crossed that red line. “President Obama, do not attack Syria,” Mr. Trump posted on Twitter at the time. “There is no upside and tremendous downside. Save your ‘powder’ for another (and more important) day!”
Still, Mr. Trump has been more consistent in making clear that he does not see it as the United States’ place to get involved in other countries’ affairs. During last year’s campaign, he posted on Twitter that “Syria is NOT our problem” and signaled acceptance of Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. After taking office, when an interviewer suggested that President Vladimir V. Putin was a “killer,” Mr. Trump said the United States could hardly criticize. “What, you think our country’s so innocent?”
His foreign policy seems defined more by a transactional nationalism, rooted in the sense that the United States is getting ripped off — by NATO allies who are not paying enough for their own defense, by trading partners like China that are “eating our lunch” and by neighbors like Mexico that are sending drugs and criminals over the border. Rather than spreading American values, his policy aims to guard American interests.
“It struck me that it was very Chinese in orientation,” said Ian Bremmer, the founder and president of the Eurasia Group, a consultancy in Washington. “You take out all of the issues of American exceptionalism and values, you take out all the restraints and responsibilities of American alliances and architecture that are based on those values, and it creates a very different sense of foreign policy.”
Other presidents were not always consistent in speaking out for democracy and human rights, but they did make such issues a priority at times. Mr. Bush argued that decades of realism that subordinated democracy in favor of stability in the Middle East had yielded neither. In his second inaugural address, he vowed to predicate the United States’ relations with “every ruler and every nation” on their treatment of their own people. Mr. Obama thought Mr. Bush’s democracy push was too messianic, but he did encourage protesters during the Arab Spring and he did suspend some arms sales to Egypt after a military takeover.
Mr. Trump, by contrast, lifted human rights conditions on arms sales to Bahrain, a crucial American ally in the Middle East, and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson declined to personally present the State Department’s annual human rights report, as his predecessors did. Asked at a meeting on Tuesday with King Abdullah II of Jordan about the chemical weapons attack in Syria, Mr. Tillerson remained silent, only later issuing a written statement condemning it.
Aides said human rights remained a concern for Mr. Trump. But, they added, he believes he will be more effective raising the issue in private. A senior White House official previewing this week’s visit of Mr. Xi of China on the condition of anonymity told reporters on Tuesday that human rights were integral to American foreign policy and would be brought up in the Chinese-American relationship.
Other administration officials have also been outspoken, especially Nikki R. Haley, the ambassador to the United Nations, who has criticized Russia far more harshly than Mr. Trump has.
“While there have been strong statements made by senior people in the administration, we haven’t heard that echoed at the top, and that creates confusion about human rights and its place on the president’s foreign policy agenda,” said David J. Kramer, an assistant secretary of state for human rights under Mr. Bush and now a scholar at the McCain Institute for International Leadership.
Ms. Haley said there was no schism between her and the president on such issues. “I think we’re both saying the same thing; it’s just being reported differently,” she said on Sunday on “This Week” on ABC.
Challenged on how that could be, she added: “The president has not once called me and said, ‘Don’t beat up on Russia,’ has not once called me and told me what to say.”
But he does not say it himself.
A version of this news analysis appears in print on April 5, 2017, on Page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: For Trump, a Focus on U.S. Interests and a Disdain for Moralizing.