Since the end of the Cold War, in U.S. administrations Republican and Democratic, concern for human rights — from abused minorities and jailed dissidents to freedom of the press — has been a bedrock of U.S. policy around the globe.
But as Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives in Florida on Thursday for a two-day summit with President Trump, the sensitive issue — once a key part of White House discussions with China’s authoritarian leaders — has all but disappeared from the public U.S. agenda.
Xi has overseen a crackdown on Chinese political dissidents and minorities that human rights groups describe as the most severe in a generation. White House officials say they plan to bring up human rights in private discussions with Xi, but it isn’t the priority.
As part of Trump’s “America First” policy, he and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have signaled a far more transactional with-us-or-against-us foreign policy, even if it means embracing authoritarian leaders and governments accused of grievous abuses and ruthless violence.
The shift in some ways is a return to the crude realpolitik of the Cold War, when U.S. presidents supported brutal dictators in Chile, the Philippines, South Africa and elsewhere as long as they opposed the Soviet Union.
Under Trump, U.S. foreign policy pivots in many cases on whether the foreign leader aggressively supports the battle against the Islamic State and other terrorist groups.
On Monday, for example, Trump gave an effusive, warm White House welcome to the “fantastic” Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi, who is fighting an Al Qaeda-linked insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula.
Sisi, a former general, seized power in a coup and was shunned by President Obama for his use of mass detentions, killings of protesters by security forces, military trials of civilians and hundreds of death sentences.
Last Thursday, Tillerson held long meetings in Ankara with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, another autocrat who has played a key role supporting U.S. military operations against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
Erdogan’s government closed numerous media outlets and fired or arrested tens of thousands of public officials — including judges, teachers, journalists and university academics — after an abortive coup last summer.
Tillerson and Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, also signaled that the administration does not oppose the continued rule of Syrian President Bashar Assad, a sharp shift from the Obama administration, in the country’s vicious multi-sided civil war.
Although Trump blamed Obama for failing to bomb Syria after Assad used chemical weapons in 2012, some analysts faulted the recent comments from Trump’s team for tacitly giving Assad a green light to use toxic weapons this week in one of the worst chemical attacks of the six-year war. Assad's government has denied responsibility.
It took nine hours for Trump to join an international chorus of outrage against the poison gas attack, which left dozens of civilians dead. On Wednesday, Trump said said the attack “crosses many, many lines. Beyond a red line, many, many lines."
The administration also removed the requirement that Bahrain meet human rights standards before it can buy U.S. fighter jets. It also sought to approve the blocked sale of a package of precision-guided missiles to Saudi Arabia.
Both governments relentlessly repress political dissent at home and have been blamed for using cluster bombs and other munitions against civilian targets in Yemen that left hundreds of casualties.
The Trump administration insists it continues to view the fight for human rights as important, but that it is better conducted out of public view.
A senior administration official, briefing reporters ahead of Sisi’s visit, declared it was "most effective" to handle human rights "in a private, more discreet way."
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer echoed that view when reporters asked why the White House did not condemn Sisi’s human rights record.
"We understand the concern, and I think those are the kind of things that I believe progress is made privately," Spicer said.
But human rights advocates and many current and former diplomats disagree.
Tom Malinowski, who as assistant secretary of State for democracy, human rights and labor under President Obama saw his portfolio expanded and given a high profile, said the White House under the new administration can no longer be viewed as a broker for justice in the world.
Trump “has told us very, very clearly ... that he doesn’t really believe that the United States can be or should be a force for good in other countries,” Malinowski said.
“This is a clarifying moment for a lot of people,” Malinowski said during a conference on abuses by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump has expressed admiration for Putin, but relations with Russia remain in a near-freeze amid U.S. investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
“Avoiding sensitive bilateral issues like human rights is not a prescription for effective diplomacy — it does not buy you trust or leverage,” William Burns, president of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace and a former deputy secretary of State, said in an interview.
“I’ve always found being direct and consistent about our concerns is a signal of the strength, not weakness, of our relationships,” said Burns, who held ambassadorial posts under Democratic and Republican administrations.
Trump has proposed cutting the State Department budget by about 29%. If approved by Congress, the cuts would target foreign aid programs meant to promote democracy, human rights, maternal health care, clean water and other positive goals.
The White House also seeks to cut funds for United Nations peacekeeping efforts and is reportedly considering withdrawing from the U.N. Human Rights Council. It also plans to gut highly touted social spending in Central America that was intended to prevent an exodus of migrants to the U.S. border.
The prominence of human rights in U.S. foreign policy has ebbed and flowed through the decades, with presidents often embracing despots in Asia, Africa and Latin America as long as they supported U.S. policy.
President Carter, who took office in 1977, was the first president to make the cause of human rights an official part of U.S. foreign policy, an issue that did not help him at the ballot box. He served only one term.
His successor, Ronald Reagan, moved quickly to purge diplomats and other officials who had promoted the Carter-era policies that they viewed as weak, backing often-brutal anti-Soviet leaders around the globe at the height of the Cold War.
Once the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the administrations of Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama all reasserted human rights overseas as a priority in different degrees.
In a break with that tradition, Tillerson did not personally present the State Department’s annual report on the status of human rights around the world this year. For the last-quarter century, the secretary’s endorsement at a high-level press conference has guaranteed global headlines for the assessment.
Instead, Tillerson’s absence drew notice. The report was announced on a telephone conference call by a State Department official who refused to let reporters quote her by name.
Trump’s meetings with Xi this week may provide a test of his interest in human rights.
Susan Thornton, acting assistant secretary of State for East Asian affairs, insisted that the issue “cannot help but come up.” But she did not explain her reasons for confidence, nor whether it would be the presidents who discussed the topic.