President Donald Trump’s nationalistic “America first” inaugural address included this declaration: “We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to follow.” In fact, for decades the United States has been championing democracy and market capitalism, relying on our own example but also promoting these values as superior to the miseries of tyranny. It has been a worthy cause.

Does Trump intend to abandon this quest? His early months in office certainly have suggested the answer is yes. He has hardly said a word to authoritarian bosses about repression of their people and has made no secret of his affinity for strongmen such as Presidents Xi Jinping of China, Vladimir Putin of Russia, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, at a time when illiberalism seems to be on the march around the world. No doubt, many of these leaders were smiling when the new secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, did not even attend the release of the State Department’s annual human rights report.

Yet this week, there was a glimmer of hope that the department, at least, has not thrown in the towel. The State Department issued a statement in defense of Taner Kilic, the chairman of Amnesty International Turkey, who was detained in recent days on suspicion of links with the movement of Fethullah Gulen, a cleric who lives in Pennsylvania. Erdogan, who was the target of a failed coup last July, has since carried out a wave of arbitrary punishments and imprisonments of thousands of journalists, academics, bureaucrats, lawyers and human rights defenders he suspects of affiliation with Gulen and his movement. This cruel frenzy is just the latest step in Erdogan’s march toward authoritarianism.

The State Department statement, saying it is “deeply concerned” about the detention, stopped short of mentioning Erdogan by name. But it accurately declared that the detentions in Turkey, “often with little evidence or transparency, are an alarming trend” and that they undermine Turkey’s democracy. We would add that there are hundreds of other cases worth speaking out about in Turkey as well.

No one should harbor any illusions that Trump has changed his views overnight, but it is promising that Tillerson’s department has seen fit to issue the statement. More such statements ought to be forthcoming. The United States must not only lead by example, as Trump suggested on taking office. It must also lead by speaking out forcefully on behalf of people whose rights are shackled in dark corners of the globe.

Editorial by The Washington Post

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