Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

The U.S., Saudi Arabia and Global Influence


President Trump said this week, maybe he did, maybe he didn't, about the CIA's assessment that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman almost certainly ordered the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi-born journalist who lived in America. The president then thanked the Saudi government for pledging to spend billions of dollars in America and repeated the motto of his foreign policy, quote, "very simply, it is called 'America First.'" Does America still consider itself what Ronald Reagan called a shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere?

We're going to turn now to Robert Kagan. He has advised Republican and Democratic secretaries of state. He's a columnist for The Washington Post and author of the book "The Jungle Grows Back: America And Our Imperiled World." Thanks so much for being with us.

ROBERT KAGAN: Good morning.

SIMON: Is the president just bold enough to put into words what every administration, Republican and Democratic, has done, which is look the other way at human rights crimes - including, most prominently, China these days - of regimes that serve U.S. interests?

KAGAN: Well, there's certainly a tradition of that in American foreign policy. Sometimes presidents have decided to look the other way when they decided that, you know, vital national interests were at stake. And I'm afraid, particularly in the case of Saudi Arabia, we've been looking away for decades.

It's not always the case that presidents openly contradict their intelligence services. In doing so, and as usual, Trump brings his own special flair to this. But I would say both executive branch officials and members of Congress are likely to stick with Saudi Arabia, regardless of what happens.

SIMON: Well, and forgive me, but is that so terrible? Is it only recognizing the obvious?

KAGAN: I think that we have our relationship with Saudi Arabia exactly backwards. They are, in fact, entirely dependent on us for their security, but we are basically letting them call all the shots. This is partly because of our relationship with Israel, which has a tremendous influence over our policies.

But basically, Saudi Arabia is heading in the wrong direction. This kind of behavior by the crown prince is clearly not something that we should want to support, not just because of the terrible deed itself, but because it makes it clear that Saudi Arabia's not a stable country. And so I think, you know, in an alliance like this, we should have more control over what our policy is rather than subcontracting it to a very unstable and, I think, unpredictable regime.

SIMON: Well, let me ask you, Mr. Kagan, about an argument that has mostly come from the left in this country that the U.S. really has no legal or moral standing to tell another country, whether it's Iran, Cuba, Venezuela or Saudi Arabia, how to conduct its own internal affairs.

KAGAN: Well, I think that, you know, that's certainly true. I think when we tell other countries, you know - we express our views about human rights in other countries, we're certainly interfering in their internal affairs. Now, I would also say, but then, let's not also provide them their security if we don't want to tell them - if they don't want to hear what we have to say, they also don't need to rely on us, and they can take care of themselves.

So you know, I think that we're not wrong as a country to try to stand up for principles, and also to make ourselves try to live up to those same principles. I think there's nothing wrong with the principles. It's just a question of whether we, ourselves, are consistent.

SIMON: Well, but - and I'm afraid, just a half a minute we have left - what are the implications of that? I mean, do we say to China, which imprisons and executes people and has the Uighurs - about a million Uighurs in camps now - do we say to them, well, we can't do business with you?

KAGAN: Well, we could do business with them, but I think that there's no contradiction. And I think, you know, if you look at Ronald Reagan, for instance, he conducted arms control talks with the Soviet Union while criticizing them. And I think that's a perfectly legitimate approach. We can look after our interests and, at the same time, stand up for our principles.

And, by the way, we need to understand that, many times, our principles are very much in our interest to support around the world. In places like Europe and Asia, that's been the basis of global peace.

SIMON: Robert Kagan, thanks so much.

KAGAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.