Is it hypocrisy or realpolitik? This question comes up frequently in discussions about U.S. foreign policy. There are people who say that America is duplicitous for maintaining friendly relationships with authoritarian governments around the world, in direct contradiction with the ideals of democracy and human rights that it regularly touts. They point, for example, to the kleptocratic regime of Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire and the murderous dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Chile that the U.S. helped keep in power for years.
While they don’t refute this charge, there are those who argue that dealing with odious regimes abroad is sometimes necessary to protect America’s geopolitical and other vital national interests. Where people stand on this question is often driven by their politics. The idealists tend to be on the political left, whereas the pragmatists are usually right-leaning.
Unquestionably, the enormous influence that America wields in world affairs derives mostly from its economic and military might. However, despite the cynical view that some people hold about U.S. foreign policy, it is also the case that America has always had a moral voice that, globally, most people were willing to listen to. That voice, unfortunately, is being weakened at an alarming rate.
Over the last few years, Uighur Muslims in China have been subjected to forced labor in re-education camps by the Chinese authorities, and, as part of an ethnic cleansing exercise, Rohingya Muslims have been driven out of their villages in Myanmar into squalid refugee camps in Bangladesh. These are just two of the numerous groups of marginalized people across the world who are systematically oppressed by their own governments. In the past, such people could hope that their suffering would be alleviated somewhat by the simple act of America raising its voice to speak against the injustices they endured.
That hope is increasingly dwindling. President Trump’s isolationist policies had already reduced America’s willingness to engage in such moral browbeating. But lately, repressive governments have also begun to use events like the brutal killing of George Floyd, which they say symbolize America’s own problems with oppression of minority groups, as convenient excuses to repel any attempts by the U.S. to intervene on behalf of marginalized people overseas.
During the mass protests that erupted in Minneapolis and other cities after George Floyd’s death, some people resorted to unacceptable violence that needed to be quelled swiftly to prevent further destruction of property. To that end, President Trump threatened to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807, a federal law that allows active duty troops to be used within the U.S. to suppress civil disorder, insurrection, and rebellion.
Doing so would not have been without recent precedent. During the 1992 Los Angeles riots that followed the acquittal of four police officers who had been tried for the beating of Rodney King, President H.W. Bush invoked the Insurrection Act to help restore order in the city.
Whether he would have been justified or not, it was the manner in which President Trump communicated his intent that unnecessarily escalated tensions. He certainly had every reason to condemn the violence. But the occasion also demanded some reconciliatory gesture, given the nature of the event that triggered the demonstrations. Instead, he instinctively employed quite belligerent language. Police in riot gear were subsequently called in to use tear gas and rubber bullets to forcefully clear peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square, near the White House, to allow the president’s walk to the proximate St. John’s Episcopal Church for a photo-op.
I have lived under several military dictatorships, and I know how suffocating that can be. I was particularly disturbed by the sight of a fully uniformed Gen. Mark Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, alongside President Trump at Lafayette Square that day. Authoritarian leaders around the world find means to politicize and capture their countries’ military institutions, and once they have successfully done so, often rule in the most brutish fashion—sometimes indefinitely. While such an outcome is highly unlikely in America, that Lafayette Square picture was still uncomfortable to look at.
Culture matters a lot in national politics. There is something about American society that enables it to recover well from the periodic convulsions it suffers. That unique cultural trait was evident in the vehement opposition of several past and present military leaders to President Trump’s threatened use of active duty troops to confront civilian protesters. Perhaps most heartening was Gen. Milley’s later apology for his presence in Lafayette Square with the president on that photo-op mission, having realized the inappropriateness of it.
Autocrats everywhere have watched the recent events in America with glee. Many have pointed to the sometimes violent police responses to the unrest as no different from their brutal suppression of political activists and protesters in their own countries. Unfortunately, this will be used as license for further crackdowns for years to come.
The hope is that the European Union will step in to fill the void left by America’s increasingly diminishing involvement in global affairs. That is a bit optimistic. Because it comprises 27 member countries, the European Union often struggles to agree on important issues. For example, some member countries were initially reluctant to impose sanctions on Russia following its annexation of Crimea in 2014. It took the downing of a Malaysian airliner, allegedly by Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, to concentrate minds in Europe that Russian aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere had to be confronted. The airliner’s 298 passengers, who were all killed, were mostly European tourists.
A skeptical and recalcitrant Congress can sometimes thwart America’s external interventions. However, because U.S. presidents have fairly broad powers to conduct foreign policy, they are able to unilaterally take unpopular decisions to act when necessary. The importance of that leeway as a means to help maintain global order cannot be underestimated.
America has never been perfect. But it has always served as a beacon of hope for millions around the world. Any further degradation of America’s moral standing that leads to its inability to fulfill that indispensable role would be disastrous for marginalized and other vulnerable people elsewhere.