Jamal Khashoggi wanted to get married. The self-exiled Saudi Arabian journalist walked into his country’s consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 to obtain the paperwork for his wedding. He has not been seen since. As of Oct. 10, the assumption is that the Saudi regime took the opportunity to silence one of its more prominent critics.
The mystery is how. Turkish authorities, albeit not the most trusted bunch themselves, believe Khashoggi was murdered inside the building by a team of 15 operatives, his corpse dismembered and transported outside in boxes. The Saudis claim he left alive and have pledged to investigate—though few believe a Saudi regime that has long been unafraid to detain or punish dissidents.
Although the murder of a critic on foreign soil would, if confirmed, be an unprecedented act even for a brutal kingdom, it fits within a larger pattern. Across the world, authoritarian countries like Saudi Arabia have developed a rising sense of impunity when it comes to human rights and the rule of international law. Behavior once hidden behind palace doors now happens beyond borders and in the full view of the world.
Take China. Aside from the legion of human-rights abuses committed inside its own borders, including the detention of 1 million Uighurs, Beijing arrested Meng Hongwei, who as head of Interpol was a symbol of the international rule of law. Both have been ensnared by an antigraft campaign that President Xi Jinping and his regime have used to target critics and rivals. Russia too has taken its crackdown on dissenters global, most recently with the brazen poisoning attempt on former double agent Sergei Skripal in the U.K.
This is happening with the implicit acceptance of the U.S., which under President Donald Trump has rejected its role as a champion of universal values like human rights. The White House, which has forged close personal and economic ties with Saudi leaders, issued a statement almost a whole week after Khashoggi’s disappearance—and only to limply urge a transparent investigation. “I don’t like hearing about it, and hopefully that will sort itself out,” Trump said.
But Trump is only one facet of this diminution of the U.S. as a moral lodestar for the world. Just as important is the hollowing-out of the State Department and the White House’s refusal to fill key posts across the diplomatic corps. Although it appears Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is trying to fix this, over 52% of top department positions were unfilled as of July. The U.S. still has no ambassadors in Saudi Arabia, Turkey or Egypt. Around the world, back channels built up over decades, through which pressure has been quietly yet rigorously applied, have run dry. A century of moral diplomacy begun by Woodrow Wilson is coming to an end under Trump.
The President’s defenders may -question why it’s America’s responsibility to confront human-rights abusers. It’s because few others have the weight of authority or the sheer economic might to do it. When Canada dared to criticize Saudi Arabia over its human–rights record in August, the kingdom angrily stalled investment deals and yanked diplomats from Ottawa. The Saudis would be unlikely to risk a similar response if its benefactor the U.S. were to speak up.
The U.S. Congress may yet do so. And if -Khashoggi’s murder can be confirmed, then economic sanctions will likely follow. But defending and spreading liberal values requires a more patient approach than crude dollar diplomacy.
Besides, these kinds of punitive measures have done little to curb similar behavior elsewhere. For all that the sanctions on Russia have slowed its economy, they have not prevented its extranational hacking activity. On Oct. 4, fresh evidence emerged of attempts by Russia’s secret services to hack the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, antidoping agencies and even the investigation into the Malaysia Airlines flight downed over Ukraine in 2014.
Worryingly, this trend toward impunity comes as voters worldwide seem more attracted to strongmen and dictators. In Brazil on Oct. 7, a far-right demagogue, Jair Bolsonaro, who is openly nostalgic for the country’s military dictatorship, won the first-round election by a huge margin. If he succeeds in a runoff vote, who is poised to stop him if he tries to return Brazil to an era when abusing citizens was woven into the fabric of the state? Not the U.S., for one.