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Make America Righteous Again

The U.S. has been roiled by a wave of anti-police brutality protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, yet another unarmed Black man in police custody. These protests have, in turn, inspired global demonstrations in solidarity at protesting police brutality in numerous other countries. However, the United States’ underlying systemic racism, as well as its reaction to the resulting protests, have both proven to be extreme liabilities in its global soft power war with China.

Image by Patrick Behn from Pixabay ©2020

Though it is tempting to think of the protests as purely a domestic issue, they have ripple effects on American foreign policy. Today’s protests are happening against the backdrop of increased global scrutiny and, in particular, increased great power competition between China and the United States. This is not without precedent, as the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. took place during the Cold War, which was defined by soft power competition as much as it was by proxy “hot” wars.

It is important to remember that this movement took place before Nixon’s 1972 China visit, in the space of the United States’ competition with two Cold War adversaries. Regardless, pressure from the international community on the United States for it to live up to its professed values influenced the domestic struggle. Pointedly, the United States realized that in order to gain the upper hand against its Cold War rivals in the human rights sphere, it needed to champion those values in practice as much as in spirit.

Of course, there are issues of moral equivalence regarding China’s own human rights record, such as alleged discrimination towards African students in China as part of its COVID-19 response. Two other more prominent human rights issues in U.S.–China relations are Hong Kong and Xinjiang, signified by the newly-passed Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act and Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, respectively. While there are legitimate arguments to be made on these issues, the foundation of these arguments is severely eroded when talking about heavy-handed police responses to protesters in Hong Kong, or, more broadly, discrimination towards a historically ethnic minority with its own distinct culture in the case of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

The lack of an overarching, diplomatic government response to the protesters’ demands is reflective of the United States’ reflexive militarized approach to solving problems in the foreign policy arena. The outsized role law enforcement plays in domestic affairs is analogous to the role the Department of Defense plays overseas. Senior officials within the Trump administration have publicly attempted to delegitimize the protesters’ demands for structural reforms by characterizing them as agents of Antifa or influenced by foreign actors.

This approach, typified by Senator Tom Cotton, even calls for regular military forces to be deployed against the protesters, further supplementing local law enforcement, presently already supplemented by regional National Guard units. China also uses this hardline tactic—crushing dissent at all costs without addressing the underlying issues which fostered the dissent in the first place—against the U.S. as the 31st anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests also passes.

Commitment to human rights is the one topic that the United States regularly deploys against both China and Russia in this renewed era of great power competition. In 2018, the Washington D.C. government renamed the street outside of the Russian Embassy in honor of Boris Nemtsov, a slain Russian opposition figure and political activist. At the time, the renaming was acknowledged by the U.S. government as representative of its stance towards greater human rights and democracy within Russia. This gesture has now been turned back upon the federal government itself as the Washington, D.C. government has renamed a street near the White House where protesters demonstrated “Black Lives Matter Plaza”.

To revisit Nixon, the former president was a highly polarizing figure due to his stance on civil rights and anti-Vietnam protesters, despite his historic visit to China to normalize relations between the two future great power rivals. Though Nixon found himself at odds with the Civil Rights Movement, his administration did not barricade the White House or engage in the sort of violent suppression that has marked recent events in American history. Instead, he engaged in the time-honored art of diplomacy, even with one’s adversary, and met personally with the protesters, even if somewhat stiltedly. Just as diplomacy’s role in foreign policy will be even more critical going forward, it will be equally critical for the United States to realize the value of effective diplomacy in solving a range of domestic issues as well.

Another historic milestone was reached recently as the United States noted the 76th anniversary of D-Day. D-Day is widely heralded within the U.S. foreign policy establishment as being emblematic of The Greatest Generation’s finest moment in its struggle to fight tyranny and oppression overseas. Most importantly for U.S. global soft power, however, the United States would be much better served if it showed to the world its true commitment to living up to its professed values the way it once did on the shores of Normandy 76 years ago.


Robert Shines

Robert is President of Bright Group Consulting USA, where he provides geopolitical forecasting services regarding U.S.-China relations. He is also an analyst with the Foreign Policy Association and Editor with Global Risk Insights.
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