Americans have long debated the degree to which the U.S. should promote democracy and human rights in other countries, but these days it seems more like a country in need of humanitarian intervention itself.
The UN Human Rights Council is holding a special debate on “systemic racism” in the United States. Crisis Group, a U.S.-based NGO which monitors violence and societal breakdown around the world, is, for the first time, turning its attention to “drivers of deadly conflict” in the U.S. The governments of countries like Canada and Australia have issued the kind of statements about press freedom and the treatment of protesters in the U.S. that we’re more used to hearing about Turkey, Egypt, or Venezuela. And countries that are usually on the receiving end of human rights criticism from the U.S. have gleefully taken the opportunity to thumb their noses at American hypocrisy.
All this has led to some soul searching about whether a democracy as flawed as this one has any business telling other countries how to run their societies. “Watching [George] Floyd pleading for his life, American protesters getting tear-gassed, and journalists getting attacked can shake one’s faith in the values that the United States has long prided itself on standing for,” writes the Egyptian journalist Sara Khorshid. Journalist Arash Karami is blunter, writing “I’m not saying the US lost the moral authority to speak about human rights abuses in other countries. I’m saying the US never had the moral authority to do so in the first place.”
As these arguments suggest, a certain amount of hypocrisy was baked into American rhetoric about democracy from the start. It’s always been a country that’s served as a model for people fighting for freedom around the world, and a destination for those fleeing from oppression and violence, even as it has continually denied full democracy to many of its own citizens.
Still, this time something feels different, perhaps because any shred of credibility that remained was vaporized by this administration’s open contempt for the rule of law over the past four years. The most glaring recent instance came on June 3, when on the same day the U.S. government was commemorating the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, a prominent senator with close ties to the administration wrote an op-ed in the country’s most prominent newspaper calling for sending the military into American cities. A government with that little self-awareness simply can’t be taken seriously when it condemns abuses abroad.
But the reason that the argument that America can no longer be a leader on democracy or human rights still feels flawed is that it conflates the United States, with the U.S. government. America’s political leaders may have done lasting damage to their ability to speak credibly about democracy and human rights, but the American people still can. In fact, that’s exactly what they’ve been doing for the last three weeks. And the world is responding.
The movement that began in Minneapolis after the police killed George Floyd has now gone global, with protests held in dozens of cities around the world. These protests may have begun as displays of solidarity with those protesting in the U.S., which itself seems like a measure of the prominent role America still plays in the global imagination: There haven’t been similar displays of solidarity on behalf of those facing state violence or discrimination in China or India.
But more significantly, the Black Lives Matter-inspired protests quickly connected the dots to confront racist violence in their own nations. The Floyd protests have stirred a debate about racism in France, the UK’s role in the slave trade, Belgium’s brutal colonialism in Congo, the rise of neo-Nazism in Germany, anti-immigrant sentiment in Italy, police brutality in Mexico, the continuing legacy of apartheid in South Africa, police racism toward aboriginal people in Australia, discrimination against black and indigenous people in Canada, and the rise of racism under Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro. While Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has angrily rejected any comparison between the treatment of protesters in Hong Kong—who’ve been continually celebrated by American China hawks— and those in the United States, Hong Kong’s protesters themselves see parallels with their own movement, which is partly a response to police violence.
All these issues, and the public movements to address them, pre-dated Floyd’s killing. But nonetheless, this year, people around the world saw Americans protesting against cruelty and discrimination, and took it as an opportunity to force a public reckoning over injustices, current and historic, in their own societies. America, in other words, is still seen as an example to the world, in spite of its leaders.
This still leaves the tricky question of how the U.S. government, even after Trump leaves office, should incorporate democracy promotion and human rights into its foreign policy given the damage to the country’s credibility done by this administration. Both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren made interesting attempts to link democracy promotion abroad with fighting for economic equality and rule of law at home, though it wasn’t always clear how that vision would work in practice, and presumptive nominee Joe Biden’s rhetoric is a little less nuanced when it comes to American exceptionalism. Tamara Coffman Wittes of the Brookings Institution suggests an “honest, humble rights promotion” approach that emphasizes engagement with civil society over “demarches to rights-abusing governments.”
It’s not going to be an easy needle to thread, but the good news is that U.S. citizens aren’t waiting for their government to take a consistent stance on human rights and democracy. They’re doing it themselves.
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