Recently, a Chinese diplomatic delegation dressed down America’s secretary of state on American soil. In doing so, the Chinese spoke proudly of their growing strength and reminded us of our internal weakness, repeating back the self-critical themes of America’s current leadership.
The Biden Administration’s attempt to set the tone with the Chinese as an exercise in soft power backfired dramatically.
Our Domestic Politics Used to be a Foreign Policy Asset
Since the dawn of America’s international aspirations in 1898, American power has depended on a combination of its economic strength, its military prowess, and the stability and justice of its political system.
Even earlier, with the Monroe Doctrine, America proclaimed a commitment to its own sovereignty and to the sovereignty of others. Our country, after all, achieved its independence by throwing off its British colonial masters. A young America rejected colonialism and pledged to use its power to limit European colonial ambitions in the Western Hemisphere.
The commitment to sovereignty was more than mere lip service, and persisted even as America became a global power. Our 1898 war against Spain resulted in an independent Cuba and Philippines. After World War I, America sought a more humane and lasting peace through Wilson’s Fourteen Points. The allies’ abandonment of these principles seeded the grievances that would erupt later in World War II. In 1956, the United States stood against Britain, France, and Israel in their attempts to seize Egypt’s Suez Canal, proclaiming opposition to this de facto colonial venture.
While this commitment was sometimes recognizable only in the breach, America’s moral authority and commitment to sovereignty often carried significant weight in enhancing American prestige and soft power. It was the basis for Cold War programs like the Peace Corps and USAID and supported our role as a peace broker in Ireland, the Middle East, and Africa.
The moral aspect of American policy went beyond a commitment to sovereignty. In its dealings with foreign powers, America often emphasized its superior domestic institutions. After World War II, we remade Germany and Japan as liberal, democratic states. During the Cold War, Ronald Reagan famously called the Soviet Union an “Evil Empire,” adding moral clarity and moral weight to the contest between the two superpowers.
From Political Exemplar to Political Crusader
In recent decades, America has assumed the role of sole superpower and, under Democratic and Republican presidents alike, committed itself to exporting its political system to the rest of the world, frequently through military power.
Defending the Iraq Campaign in 2006, George W. Bush declared, “In the long run, the best way to defeat this enemy and to ensure the security of our own citizens is to spread the hope of freedom across the broader Middle East.”
Similarly, in justifying military intervention in Libya, Barack Obama announced, “For generations, the United States of America has played a unique role as an anchor of global security and as an advocate for human freedom. Mindful of the risks and costs of military action, we are naturally reluctant to use force to solve the world’s many challenges. But when our interests and values are at stake, we have a responsibility to act.”
This approach has been controversial because it expanded the previous and more limited pro-sovereignty policy. Amorphous concepts like the “duty to protect” and promoting democracy made little distinction between what happens within foreign nations and what constitutes foreign affairs.
The excessive concern with internal affairs, including the political structures of foreign governments, is inherently aggressive. Other nations’ political systems, whether of the Saudis or the Russians, reflect the cultural values and mores of the people involved.
Not merely the leadership, but significant numbers of the citizens of these nations do not want to be lectured to about how to behave, nor do they want American-style democracy. This is especially true when American democracy means not merely elections expressing the will of its citizens, but globalism, secularism, and taking away control of their national destinies.
The earlier policy of restraint has become completely eviscerated in a few decades due to the recent preoccupation with human rights and exporting democracy. This was predictable. When the watchword of America’s “soft” foreign policy was protection of sovereignty from colonialism, it was a defensive program particularly attractive to smaller nations. When it became the promotion of democracy and human rights, it ironically became aggressive and controversial, threatening the sovereignty and self-determination of large and small nations alike.
Leftist Anti-Americanism Creates Foreign Policy Problems
America’s promotion of human rights and democracy is particularly sensitive to our perceived domestic politics. An ambitious, expansive and idealist foreign policy faces an additional burden from the leftward tilt of the Democratic Party.
Preaching the value of American democracy abroad is not consistent with increasingly harsh and self-critical rhetoric about our domestic life. Black Lives Matter, for example, asserts that America does not value black lives, long after a Civil War to end slavery and a multi-decade effort to undo the vestiges of racial prejudice, as well as the election of a black president. This rhetoric attacks the foundations of America’s common political heritage and indulges freely in dramatic condemnations of our founders, our past, and our present as being intertwined with racial oppression and other forms of injustice.
Particularly in the Jim Crow era, this charge had some merit. It was, in fact, a common form of tu quoque defense by the Soviet Union. But then as now, societies are good and bad by degrees. Whatever injustice prevailed in the America of the 1950s, it was not the Gulag. Further, the American system that had within it the means of repairing itself, such as free speech, a free press, and a legal system that could apply its highest principles to address persistent injustice.
The frequent condemnation of America by the American Left—the people now in charge—is creating real problems abroad. The Biden Administration imagined that its softer tone, its absence of provocative tweets, and its commitment to the aesthetics of genteel diplomacy would be welcomed and rewarded, both by allies and foreign competitors. Instead, recognizing a great deal of internal weakness, foreign nations have pounced.
At a conference on American soil, the Chinese delegation recently responded to the condemnation of Secretary of State Tony Blinken with a condemnation of their own. Their chief diplomat remarked, “On human rights, we hope that the United States will do better on human rights. . . . And the challenges facing the United States in human rights are deep-seated. They did not just emerge over the past four years, such as Black Lives Matter. It did not come up only recently. So we do hope that for our two countries, it’s important that we manage our respective affairs well instead of deflecting the blame on somebody else in this world. . . . So let me say here that, in front of the Chinese side, the United States does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength.”
The image of Blinken’s purple-haired sidekick highlighted that the people now in charge are not the “wise men” of yesteryear. They’re older, but not grown up. Instead, they’re credentialed campus radicals, with all the immaturity, certitude, and lack of sophistication that entails. America came out of the meeting looking weak and lost.
Germany’s Angela Merkel also recently stated, “Don’t think that from tomorrow there will only be harmony between us. . . . There will also be arguments about how best to do things for our two countries.” This is not a Europe begging for American leadership. This is a Europe that, like China, treats America as a declining power.
A nation’s soft power is an important asset. At its best, diplomatic soft power can defuse tensions, communicate concerns, and nudge foreign governments to align their policy to a “win-win” concordance with our own.
But soft power depends upon national unity and national confidence. National confidence does not easily arise when the leadership applauds athletes taking a knee at sporting events, treats minor domestic protests as a nascent insurgency, or picks at the scab of long-since-resolved racial grievances and augments them with newly imagined ones.
It is hard to command foreign policy soft power when one lacks self-respect and respect for the nation one ostensibly represents.
As Edmund Burke observed, “[W]e have consecrated the state, that no man should approach to look into its defects or corruptions but with due caution; that he should never dream of beginning its reformation by its subversion; that he should approach to the faults of the state as to the wounds of a father, with pious awe and trembling solicitude.”
Weakness at home invites foreign enemies to test and exploit us. Responding to threats from North Korea, Defense Secretary Austin recently proclaimed that America is ready to “fight tonight.” Regarding the military itself, we can have some confidence.
But would the American people and American leadership of today—half of whom think an election was stolen, while the other half thinks the country is deeply rotten because of racial injustice—unite to win a foreign war? Would an America, where half of its people are labeled potential domestic extremists—be eager to serve a more abstract foreign policy goal, like the security of sea lanes in the South China Sea?
With leaders who lack pride in America, its people, its history, and its institutions, neither soft nor hard power is likely to be effective abroad.