Donald Trump
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Jamal Khashoggi’s horrific murder was a message to journalists, dissidents and regime critics everywhere. You are never safe. Anywhere, anytime.

Khashoggi was guilty of practicing journalism. He mistakenly bet he would be safe traveling to a NATO member nation to take care of personal business. Why? Because nations generally follow both international law and formal diplomatic practices that respect foreign laws and sovereignty.

Increasingly, however, more nations are exporting fear and practicing lethal intimidation with a new form of global vigilantism. They go abroad to get outlaw revenge.

The Khashoggi case is the latest example of exceptional and perverse murderous state-related behavior that targets and takes out perceived opponents living in exile. It’s not just journalists abroad practicing their profession that are singled-out for murder. Turncoats living in other countries are targets, and killing them, too, is a clear warning to future defectors and detractors.

In 2015, Russia’s media honcho Mikhail Lesin was murdered in a Dupont Circle hotel the night before meeting with the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. The spying Skripals barely survived a Russian poisoning attempt in the United Kingdom. In Denmark, an assassination plot aimed at an Iranian dissident recently was foiled.

Vigilante state justice abroad is a disturbing trend. It challenges a nation’s sovereignty by committing crimes on foreign soil. It is also a direct and bald-faced challenge to President Trump’s clearly articulated — perhaps only — core foreign policy principle: his “sovereignty doctrine.”

President Trump’s doctrine is an extension of his “America First” platform. He articulated this forcefully at his U.N. General Assembly speech this year when he said every nation has the right “to pursue its own customs, beliefs and traditions” as long as they “honor [American] sovereignty in return.” The problem, of course, is that those customs and traditions can range from foreign countries’ authoritarian structures to public beheadings to female genital mutilation.

“You do you” is the sovereignty doctrine in a nutshell. Here’s the rub: In the past — in rational, real life — U.S. leaders could respect other nations’ sovereignty, while decrying their attacks inside other countries. Not so with Trump, however, for whom “sovereignty” extends to ignoring or downplaying a nation’s despicable acts far beyond its borders.

The uptick in foreign assassination attempts means a weakly-enforced Trump doctrine is creating both a safe space for despicable regimes at home while also turning a nearly blind eye to their butchery abroad.

Unfortunately, America’s split policy personality is not new. A conflicted America has long professed a preference for democracy abroad but looked the other way when friends and allies transgressed their citizens’ rights. During the Cold War, anti-democratic military coups were often catalyzed and countenanced by America.

Despite this checkered history, pre-Trump America also insisted that human rights were both universal and paramount. The United States signed on to a U.N. “responsibility to protect” doctrine that sometimes overruled national sovereignty and allowed direct intervention in foreign lands to protect their populations, as in the Kosovo war. Kosovars will tell you that America got it right, the jury is still out on Iraq and Libya.

During the late 20th century America focused its diplomatic and military power on maintaining and expanding rights around the world. The United States was highly critical of the Soviet Union’s imprisonment of dissidents, and summit meetings between President Reagan and the Mikhail Gorbachev always kept refuseniks on the agenda.

A conflict-averse and sovereignty-first Trump, however, avoids bringing up uncomfortable human-rights issues with foreign leaders in the belief that he can get a better deal by leaving thorny subjects and the internal affairs of other nations off the table instead of using them as leverage. Foreign leaders preempt tensions and appease the president by forcefully denying any complicity in election interference, foreign assassinations or military aggression.

In the past, even where the negotiation stakes were high and where decoupling human rights from other policies could have assured a faster and smoother outcome, the rights agenda remained on the table, and American adversaries always knew to expect it.

That has all gone by the wayside.

Kim Jong Un is now seen not only as a legitimate dictator by President Trump, but also as someone with whom an epistolary relationship can lead to a love affair. Begone thoughts of torture, murder, enslavement for the people residing within North Korea’s borders. They are seen as birth lottery losers, and their lot is treated with indifference by POTUS.

American presidents have always given hope to oppressed peoples and inspired fear in desperado leaders. Now that the presidency no longer occupies any moral high ground, the hopes of foreign individuals for equality, democracy, independence and the promise of FDR’s “four freedoms” no longer look to the American president for hope. They now look directly to the American people.

Their hopes reside with an enlightened and activated American society to help alleviate their oppression by voting for wise and empathetic leaders who will pursue not only America’s national interests but also universal human rights and dignity.

In fact, the global hope of the tyrannized and downtrodden is that America’s leaders will again equate the international pursuit of human rights with America’s national interests. That U.S. leaders will again recognize that our intertwined values and interests are essentially one and the same.


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Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is a former NBC Radio Moscow correspondent and the author of Freedom Isn’t Free: The Price of World Order (Anthem Press, 2022).