[Column] Will Biden weaponize human rights against China?

Posted on : 2021-03-02 16:41 KST Modified on : 2021-03-02 16:41 KST
Can human rights be for Biden what they were for Carter: a strategic weapon to chip away at its major adversary in the long term?
US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping
US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping
Jung E-gil
Jung E-gil

An emphasis on human rights and criticism of authoritarian regimes — those are the most striking changes in US foreign policy since Joe Biden’s inauguration as US President. Biden has personally voiced those values in powerful rhetoric. They also shine through in his policy.

“American leadership must meet this new moment of advancing authoritarianism, including the growing ambitions of China to rival the United States and the determination of Russia to damage and disrupt our democracy,” Biden said on Feb. 4 in a foreign policy speech titled “America’s Place in the World.”

“We must start with 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,” he stressed, adding that “the Burmese military should relinquish power they have seized.”

Biden has released an intelligence report on the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which alleges the involvement of Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He has also been applying pressure by insisting that he will not recognize bin Salman as a counterpart.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Biden had not changed from the stern stance he expressed during his presidential run, when he said he planned to “make [the Saudis] in fact the pariah that they are.” The administration has also been put in an awkward position by critics who have accused the US of applying different standards of “freedom” and “human rights” for its more compliant allies.

Similarities in Biden and Carter’s foreign policy approach

The Biden administration’s approach is reminiscent of the “human rights diplomacy” and “moral diplomacy” adopted by the Jimmy Carter administration in the late 1970s. Both administrations bear certain similarities.

First, there is the element of reacting to their domestic political situation. Carter was elected amid a climate of distrust and aversion toward politics in the wake of the Watergate scandal that led to predecessor Richard Nixon’s resignation. Biden has similarly had to wrangle with extreme divisions in the US owing to the “value-free” political approach adopted by Donald Trump, who fanned race-based conflict during his term.

Second, there are the geopolitical changes that have occurred in terms of the US’ standing.

Carter inherited a situation where the US was withdrawing its presence around the world based on the Nixon Doctrine. Maintaining that the US should put an end to the conflict in Vietnam and that Asians should be responsible for their own defense, the doctrine was a strategy that involved putting an end to the overextension of US power and withdrawing from overseas.

Biden similarly finds himself in the position of having to present a more sophisticated version of the US withdrawal pursued by Trump. The US has been suffering the effects of overextension of its capabilities amid its pursuit of dominance in the liberal global order since the end of the Cold War — including excessive involvement in conflict in the Middle East. This was the context behind Trump’s push to force allies to contribute a larger share of defense costs and to withdraw troops from the Middle East.

A third similarity has been the consolidation of a “main adversary” of the US and a change in China’s strategic significance.

Carter used the US-China détente attempted by Nixon as a basis for forging US-China solidarity against the Soviet Union. To Carter, China was an ally against its main foes, namely the Soviets.

Since the Trump presidency, China has transformed into the US’s main adversary. The “great power competition” (GPC) strategy defined by the Trump administration portrayed China as a revisionist force destructive to the liberal international order.

Criticisms of authoritarianism and an emphasis on human rights have served as strategic weapons, deployed by the US to smooth over its domestic political situation, reorganize allies as overextended US forces are cut back, and strike at the weaknesses of what has now clearly been identified as a “main enemy.”

Carter’s human rights diplomacy has often been dismissed as a failed example of idealist policy — but that’s not the view of Washington’s foreign policy and national security mainstream. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who represents the standard position among this mainstream, has said the seeds of the Soviet Union’s disintegration were sown during the Carter era.

Citing the Helsinki Accords, which adopted basic human rights provisions in exchange for the recognition of Europe’s postwar borders, Gates said he believed it was propaganda and covert operations by the Carter administration that created the cracks in the system that would lead to the Soviet Union’s collapse.

“The fragile seeds of change planted between 1975 and 1978, so scorned and controversial at the time, would bear lethal fruit and help destroy an empire,” he wrote in his book “From the Shadows.”

Carter put Middle East negotiations in motion with the signing of an Egypt-Israel peace treaty; in Iran, his pressure on the Shah’s regime led to the authoritarian ruler stepping down. In East Asia, his pressure on South Korea’s Park Chung-hee administration contributed to its collapse. Carter’s administration was the first to pursue the withdrawal of US Forces Korea troops and dialogue with North Korea. Most crucially, it established a united front with China against the Soviet Union.

In the Middle East today, Biden is attempting to bury the hatchet with Iran while putting pressure on Saudi Arabia. In Asia, it is poised to ratchet up its pressure on the military regime in Myanmar. Most importantly, it is gearing up for a systematic confrontation with China.

In a CBS interview on Feb. 7, Biden said the US and China “need not have a conflict, but there’s going to be extreme competition.”

“And I'm not going to do it the way Trump did. We're going to focus on international rules of the road,” he added.

Can human rights be for Biden what they were for Carter: a strategic weapon to chip away at its major adversary in the long term?

By Jung E-gil, senior staff writer

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

Caption 6-1: US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping

Caption 6-2 Jung E-gil

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