Butterfly Effect: George Floyd’s Death Could Haunt American Diplomacy
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
For decades, the U.S. has appointed itself global arbiter of right and wrong. George Floyd’s death is changing that equation.
- Floyd’s killing and the administration’s confrontational approach to protesters is weakening the United States’ moral authority to hold other countries accountable for human rights abuses.
- Countries usually on the defensive on human rights — China, Russia, Iran and Turkey — are seizing the moment.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying, couldn’t have asked for a better opening to respond to her American counterpart Morgan Ortagus. In a lengthy tweet, the State Department spokesperson had accused China of breaking its promises to Hong Kong through a proposed new law that would give Beijing direct security control over the island. “This is a pivotal moment for the world,” Ortagus wrote.
Hua’s reply was to the point — and biting: “I can’t breathe.”
Cities across the United States have erupted in protests against the death last week of 46-year-old George Floyd in Minneapolis after two cops held the Black man to the ground and a third kept his knee pressed against Floyd’s neck even though he repeatedly told them he was unable to breathe. Around the world, Floyd’s death and President Donald Trump’s apparent lack of empathy for protesters are also undercutting the moral standing of American diplomacy as it tries to call global attention to human rights violations in other countries. That’s bad news, whether or not you agree with American foreign policy.
The Floyd incident is allowing countries that are usually on the defensive against American criticism a chance to sharpen their own knives.
For the past several decades, the U.S. has appointed itself global arbiter of right and wrong, dishing out epithets to troubled nations — calling them everything from “failed states” to an “axis of evil.” Very often, its approach has been opportunistic: using human rights violations to target rivals or enemies and to pressure others to secure favorable negotiations on deals, while for the most part ignoring allies also guilty of abuses, such as Saudi Arabia. But whatever the intent, that pressure has contributed to shining a light on several instances of rights violations — even if only selectively.
Floyd’s death is changing that equation, allowing countries that are usually on the defensive against American criticism a chance to sharpen their own knives. The Spanish-language channel of RT, the Kremlin-backed network, is using videos of Malcolm X from the 1960s to underscore America’s failure to ensure racial equality. In Tehran, protestors have held up posters saying “I can’t breathe” and “Stop racism.” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has criticized what he calls an “inhumane act.”
In China, Hua’s Foreign Ministry colleague Zhao Lijian used his Monday press briefing to lecture America on race relations — never mind the fact that China has locked up more than 1 million Uighur Muslims in camps. “Black lives matter, and their human rights should be guaranteed,” Zhao said.
Meanwhile, African Union Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat has issued a statement condemning Floyd’s “murder … at the hands of law enforcement officers.” Ghana’s president, Nana Akufo-Addo — who is seeking reelection later this year — has said that “Black people, the world over, are shocked and distraught.” Others, like the Hindu nationalist government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, will keep the Floyd incident as an arrow in its quiver, to shoot if the U.S. tries to embarrass it for its attacks on the rights of Muslims and Kashmiris.
It’s easy to dismiss this foreign criticism as organized influence campaigns aimed at sowing discord within the U.S. Indeed, for America’s rivals to try to do so would be natural — just as the U.S. has long done in other countries, from Russia and China to the myriad coups it has orchestrated elsewhere. But to portray the protests across America as somehow influenced by foreign operators would be akin to accusing Prague Spring activists of being U.S. stooges — a dishonor to powerful uprisings.
To be sure, Russia, China and other countries have used past instances of racial violence and other police excesses in the U.S. to level allegations against the country. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union actively used American racism to turn Blacks toward socialism.
But there are two key differences — even leaving aside the sheer scale of the protests — that make Floyd’s death a particularly challenging moment for America’s portrayal of itself as a global champion of human rights. During the Cold War, the West was united. Today, it’s more divided than it has been since World War II. It’s hard to see Germany or France leaping to Trump’s defense in the face of accusations of racism.
The president’s own response to the anger over Floyd’s death has also demonstrated a lack of the kind of empathy seen in similar situations from his predecessors, such as George W. Bush after attacks on minorities following 9/11 and Barack Obama after the Charleston, South Carolina, church shooting in 2015. That has made the White House a direct target of protests, emboldening America’s critics.
All of which means that if American officials do raise concerns over attacks on protesters in Hong Kong or Moscow, Tehran or Istanbul over the next few months, those governments might once again hold up Washington’s poor handling of the Floyd case as a mirror. It won’t make for a pretty reflection.