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Foreign Policy

Morality, and the Lack of It

Mar 10, 2021
  • Wang Zhen

    Research Professor, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences

While it’s a luxury to talk about morality in international politics, the U.S. as a nation has built a glorious facade of high morality for its foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. In the name of “human rights” and “justice” the U.S. and its allies have been imposing moral judgments, recriminations, sanctions or even the outright military forces on sovereign countries. But this illusory facade has tumbled in the wake of the global pandemic.

For a long time, the U.S. has claimed to be the beacon of freedom and democracy for the whole world. The collapse of the Soviet Union sent U.S. media and academia over the moon — so much so that some of them predicted the end of history and embarked on arduously promoting the U.S. governance model and political philosophy around the world. They have been rooting for chaotic scenes, ranging from “color revolutions” in Central Asia and the Caucasus to the “Arab Spring” in the Middle East. They’ve even called violent protests in Hong Kong “a beautiful sight to behold,” in total disregard of reality.

Yet after the death of George Floyd sparked protests in May last year, and since the storming of the U.S. Capitol recently, the political authorities have taken relentless measures to suppress them and make arrests. This begs the question: Why are there two standards for “human rights” and “freedom” under the sun?

Apart from its persistent disregard for racial discrimination and political polarization at home, the U.S. government’s handling of the pandemic is another textbook failure in human history. According to John Hopkins University, as of late February, COVID-19 infections in the U.S. totaled 2.5 million, with a death toll reaching 505,000. The U.S. leads the world in both infections and deaths, higher than any developing country, despite the fact that it boasts the most advanced facilities and medical technology in the world.

As a matter of fact, a friend of the author, who lived in Plainview, New York, died in the runaway pandemic. We ponder in our grief, wondering how the same politicians who are oblivious to the deaths of their own people think their call for human rights in China is nothing more than a means to solicit votes. 

Since the U.S. went into public health emergency mode in February last year, the politicians have achieved little other than smearing and scapegoating. It is this false and hypocritical approach to human rights that leads to the politicizing of the pandemic response, continued pandemic spread in the U.S., and even the prevalent racial discrimination against Asian Americans.

Domestic far-right groups and extreme organizations in the U.S. were behind the attack on the Capitol in January, even as Congress was meeting. Studies by the Rand Corporation and the Anti-Defamation League show that hate crimes against Asians and ethnic minorities have risen notably in recent years. Homegrown far-right domestic elements have overtaken the jihadists  as the primary threat for terrorism on U.S. homeland.

Internationally, what the U.S. practices is a far cry from what it preaches about human rights. At the height of the pandemic, the U.S. announced its withdrawal from the WHO, which is at the heart of the global response to the pandemic. The payment of substantial membership fees was halted. When the coronavirus vaccine was ready for deployment, Donald Trump signed an executive order to prioritize vaccine availability to Americans as part of his “America first” strategy. Meanwhile, the U.S. and its European allies bickered over masks and vaccines.

Currently, 75 percent of the vaccines available worldwide are concentrated in 10 countries, and Western countries are snatching up all vaccines on the shelves. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and African Union rotating President Naledi Pandor lashed out against vaccine nationalism. One perplexing thing is that while Western countries go to great lengths to secure vaccines, some simultaneously smear the generosity of China and Russia in offering vaccines to other countries, labeling these offers as attempts to create “spheres of influence”. 

What is the point of championing a vein of human rights that allows the neglect of people at home and the suffering of the people of other countries? As the author has argued, as Western countries have been dominating the narrative and discourse globally, it’s not much trouble for them to shift the blame or smear other countries. But this by no means erases their own responsibility, nor does it provide a path out of the woods.

We will eventually put this crisis behind us, but in the post-COVID era, the question of what kind of human rights and what international moral standard serves humanity best still merits deep thought. 

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