How should democracies deal with authoritarian states? This is a bipartisan problem that has confronted every American administration without exception. Answers vary widely, falling between two poles of a spectrum. Some believe it is America’s mission to promote freedom in the world in a principled manner; others claim that foreign policy should be about national interests alone, and that policymakers should deal with the world as it is, not as they wish it to be.
In reality, U.S. foreign policy has frequently tried to both advance freedom and protect the national interest. Foreign policy, after all, is largely driven by responses to events, where beggars can seldom be choosers. After 9/11, even the most principled democracy promoters realized the need to cooperate with authoritarian states to safeguard the American homeland. Conversely, President Donald Trump’s response to the Bashir al-Asad regime’s use of chemical weapons in Syria indicates that moral principles come into play even for the most dyed-in-the-wool realist. The George W. Bush Administration, for its part, tried to square the circle by claiming that the promotion of democracy would create a safer world for America. The results were not encouraging. Nor did President Obama’s approach—to “extend a hand” to avowed authoritarian rivals, while chiding allies for their democratic failings—improve the situation. Today, scholars and watchdog groups both point with alarm to a demonstrable backtracking of democracy around the world.