The Biden administration got itself into two international scuffles this week—one with Russia, one with China. Both involved U.S. leaders criticizing the other countries for human rights abuses, and getting called out for hypocrisy in response. Both suggest that the Biden team’s stated goal of returning democracy and human rights promotion to a central place in U.S. foreign policy is not going to be easy.
In the case of Russia, Biden agreed with a reporter’s premise that President Vladimir Putin is a “killer,” prompting the Kremlin to withdraw its ambassador to the U.S. for consultation and Putin to challenge Biden to a mano a mano televised debate. Then on Thursday, at a meeting with their Chinese counterparts in Alaska, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan opened the session—while reporters were in the room—with a boilerplate litany of China’s sins, from Xinjiang to Hong Kong to the South China Sea. Rather than sit there and take it, as the Americans seemed to expect, Yang Jiechi, head of China’s foreign office, launched into a 15-minute diatribe condemning America’s military interventions overseas and racism at home.
Biden came into office vowing to restore, as he put it, “diplomacy rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity.” Obviously, as even he would probably admit, his administration will often fall short of those values. (It has already.) At the very least, though, the Biden team promised, and so far has delivered, a rhetorical contrast with Donald Trump, who rarely even pretended to care about democracy abroad, praised other countries’ human rights abuses, and openly admitted that he preferred dealing with dictators, “the tougher and meaner they are,” to democratic leaders. (Some Trump officials, notably Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, often criticized countries like China, Venezuela, and Iran on human rights grounds, but their hypocrisy was blatant even by the historical standards of U.S. pronouncements about freedom and democracy.)
But it turns out Trump’s message is a tough genie to put back in the bottle. If America’s claim on the moral high ground in international affairs was often contradicted by the country’s actions, it could still draw on a record of rhetorical consistency. After four years of a president declaring his contempt for human rights—not to mention some recent events that have called America’s own standing as a democratic society into question—the U.S. government can’t just go back to lecturing other countries, particularly other global superpowers, about freedom of the press, imprisoned dissidents, and persecuted minorities while expecting them to glumly accept it.
American officials will counter, as Sullivan did at the meeting in Alaska, that they never claim the U.S. is perfect—they are working to undo the damage left behind by the last administration, after all—and that the difference between democratic and autocratic societies is the ability to criticize and debate their flaws. This may be true, but it puts officials at a disadvantage when they get into shaming contests with governments that are more than eager to point out American hypocrisy while brooking no criticism back home. If these governments can make it clear that public criticism, no matter how pro forma, will inevitably result in a diplomatic crisis that takes days to sort out, they may force the Americans to consider whether such criticism is even worth it.
A central premise of Biden’s foreign policy is that it should be possible to work on areas of mutual concern with countries like Russia and China without completely selling out on human rights. Hopefully that really is the case, but that doesn’t mean those governments will make it easy or pleasant.