The Biden administration’s campaign to reassure the world that the adults are back in charge of United States foreign policy is off to a rocky start.
In the first high-level bilateral talks between Chinese diplomats and their new American counterparts in Anchorage, Alaska, on Thursday, the People’s Republic’s delegation arrived with the apparent intention of humiliating the United States.
The affair rocketed off the rails right from the start. Mutually agreed protocols were abandoned during opening addresses, which were expected to amount to little more than a formality and a photo-op.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan spoke within the settled timeframe, sticking mostly to quotidian business. But they did admonish Beijing’s representatives for harsh domestic practices and destabilizing foreign policies that offend the “rules-based order that maintains global stability.” The Chinese responded with a diatribe that extended beyond agreed-upon bounds and sprawled into a searing indictment of the United States as a whole.
“We don’t believe in invading through use of force, topple other regimes, massacre people of other countries,” barked Yang Jiechi, director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission of the Chinese Communist Party. It is, he added, “important for the United States to change its own image, and to stop advancing its own democracy in the rest of the world.”
“Many people within the United States actually have little confidence in the democracy of the United States, and they have various views regarding the government of the United States,” Jiechi insisted. “In China, according to opinion polls,” he laughably added, “the leaders of China have the wide support of the Chinese people.”
“The fact is that there are many problems within the United States regarding human rights,” Jiechi concluded, “which is admitted by the U.S. itself. In the United States human rights are deep-seated, they did not just emerge over the past four years, such as Black Lives Matter.”
To this, Blinken offered a facile response. As a self-confident republican democracy, he maintained, the United States confronts its contradictions and shortcomings. We are “not trying to ignore them, not trying to pretend they don’t exist, trying to sweep them under the rug.” That’s not so much a rebuttal as a tacit concurrence with Beijing’s condemnation of the United States.
Beijing is not alone in leveraging domestic tensions in the U.S. for diplomatic gains.
In a televised interview this week, President Joe Biden was asked for comment on a declassified report that found Russian intelligence again sought to influence American domestic politics in 2020. The president insisted that his Russian counterpart would “pay a price” for his interference. When pressed as to whether he considered Vladimir Putin to be a killer, Biden replied, “I do.”
Putin responded to Biden’s remarks by insisting that the president was only deflecting from America’s troubled past and present. The United States, he noted, is the only nation to use nuclear weapons in warfare, so where does it get the moral authority to lecture Russia on its behavior? He insisted that the United States was founded on the genocidal project of ethnically cleansing Native Americans and moved on to upholding the practice of slavery for decades. And that legacy resonates even today. “Otherwise,” Putin asked, “where would the Black Lives Matter movement come from?”
This is a familiar tactic. When the Soviets weren’t actively and deliberately exacerbating racial tensions in the United States, they were taking advantage of them to defuse attacks on Moscow’s own human-rights record. “We have deep concerns [about] the respect and the guarantees of the human rights in that country,” the Communist government in Cuba insincerely mourned as recently as 2017, “where there is a large number of cases of murder, brutality, and police abuse, particularly against the African Americans.” The Chinese have long regarded America’s human-rights promotion as a tool to impose on socialist countries a “peaceful evolution” away from their values, and they are quick to dismiss U.S. entreaties on behalf of the PRC’s mistreated people.
These cynical efforts to deflect from the grotesque human-rights abuses that were and remain common to socialist republics always had their credulous audiences in the West, but American public officials could be counted on to see this tactic for what it was. Today, though, we cannot be sure that American officials still see these assaults on U.S. credibility for what they are. Among an ascendant intellectual class, the notion that the United States is historically as or more abusive toward its own citizens is practically canon.
To lend any credence to the notion that there is any human-rights equivalency between the United States and Russia or China is so hideously misinformed that it borders on mania. And Blinken’s half-hearted pushback against his table-pounding Chinese interlocutor is a discouraging, albeit preliminary, sign that this mania has found its way into the American diplomatic corps.
Make no mistake: There is no equivalence. China has ruthlessly crushed democracy in Hong Kong. It has ethnically cleansed tens of thousands of minority Muslims in Xinjiang. It has herded them into reeducation camps, where they are forced to violate the tenets of their religion and are subsequently dispersed throughout the country to perform forced labor.
Russia has jailed political dissidents, prominent and obscure alike. Its elections are neither free nor fair. It suppresses expressions of minority ethnic identity, like the practice of non-Russian languages. It has invaded and annexed sovereign territory in Europe and is implicated in terrorist acts using weapons of mass destruction on foreign soil.
And neither nation has anything like a free press. Indeed, the only reason that the Chinese or Russians are aware of America’s domestic squabbles is because of the inviolable legal protections afforded U.S. media. And quite unlike the circumstances in those countries, the expositors of academic theories about America’s fundamental evilness are its best-selling authors and television presenters, chairs of university departments, and the recipients of lavish grants from well-heeled private and public interests.
If the United States is still the self-confident liberal democracy Blinken insists that it is, its representatives should have enough spine to defend this country’s virtues in a public forum. Particularly when confronted with opportunistic, manifestly disingenuous arguments against that notion by the representatives of petty tyrannies like China. That may pit Joe Biden and his administration against the American far left. But if the choice is between a fashionable political narrative and the preservation of America’s long-term national interest abroad, it is no choice at all. At least, it shouldn’t be.