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Foreign Policy

Values-Based Diplomacy Doesn’t Work

Mar 24, 2021
  • Wu Zurong

    Research Fellow, China Foundation for Int'l Studies

Pushing American values on others in diplomatic settings has been one of the major pillars of United States foreign policy for decades. As a superpower, the U.S. has always believed its political system is the best in the world, along with its economic system, social development format, military capability, science and technology development and a global monetary system based on the U.S. dollar.

It has been trying its best to export these so-called American values to the other sovereign states and regions. Various means, peaceful or military, have been employed in this endeavor. U.S. cultural centers, educational programs, economic and military assistance programs and military bases have been set up all over the world. Joe Biden, the new U.S. president, has faithfully followed the tradition. He called for promoting American values in a speech on Feb. 4 at the State Department when he said, “We must start with diplomacy rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values.” He stressed the need to counter “advancing authoritarianism” as one of the global challenges of the moment. He briefly portrayed values-based diplomacy as defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law and treating every person with dignity.

Regrettably, Biden failed to see the new world realities in which American values do not fit for many other sovereign countries and regions.

It would violate the will of people in many places to impose American values on them. This practice has violated international laws and norms in the past. As the world and the internal situation of the U.S. have been undergoing profound changes rarely seen in history, the U.S. tends to suffer more losses if it continues to vigorously push forward with its values-based diplomacy. 

It is controversial to define every government in the world in accordance with U.S. standards in terms of its handling of rules of governance and personal freedom.  The U.S. has the habitual practice of supporting so-called political dissidents, human rights leaders or opposition leaders in other sovereign countries in the name of countering authoritarian rule. In many cases, the U.S. has gone so far as to impose sanctions on individuals and institutions. This traditional practice of the U.S. contradicts Biden’s open statement on respecting law and order.

But the U.S. has to respect the law and order of other sovereign countries in accordance with international law. There are also cases when the U.S. takes distorted facts or rumors as evidence to punish others. A case in point is the human rights situation in China’s Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. Policymakers and politicians in the U.S. would rather believe big lies and rumors than the reality of the human rights situation there.

The world is colorful in culture, and every country has its own traditions. All deserve the right to choose their own political and social system and way of life.  Hence the political system, election system, composition of the government and law and order of each and every country in the present world have their own features which are often different from those in the U.S. China and other countries can draw upon the strong points of the U.S. to offset their own deficiencies to achieve common progress, but the U.S. cannot impose its political system, election system, economic and social development format or other traditions on others as universally applicable standards.

In fact, even though the U.S. has made enormous efforts to carry out values diplomacy, including tactics of peaceful evolution in past decades, it has failed to change China and other sovereign countries according to its. will. China and other sovereign countries have been developing fast in accordance with their own political and cultural traditions.

It would be a smart choice for the Biden administration to see the point and change course by respecting other sovereign countries and learning from each other on the basis of equality.

Many American experts have come to understand that at this moment U.S. democracy is fragile. Unprecedented psychological damage was done by the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. The election-losing Republican, Donald Trump, hasn’t even conceded defeat. American democracy has thus lost some of its appeal for other countries.

Meanwhile, the U.S. human rights situation has become worse, with some deep-rooted problems unsolved, such as the constant damage to the basic rights of African-Americans resulting from racial discrimination and the deaths of innocent people caused by violent law-enforcement actions or random shooters, as in a Boulder, Colorado, supermarket recently.

China has been strengthening law and order, and improving its election system in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, while the U.S. has been punishing mobs involved in the insurrection, and partisans attempting to tilt the local and federal election systems in their favor.

China’s lawmaking and law enforcement deserve to be understood and respected by the U.S. government, as China has persisted in carrying out a consistent policy of noninterference in U.S. internal affairs. The U.S. response to what China has been doing recently in lawmaking and law enforcement in Hong Kong is actually a deliberate provocation against China by way of so-called values diplomacy. It is not merely a matter of applying double standards on human rights or the rule of law but a revelation of the true intentions of some U.S. politicians who don’t want to see a stable and prosperous Hong Kong. A few U.S. politicians with a strong Cold War mentality truly want to see continued turmoil in Hong Kong so that they can fish in troubled waters for their own selfish interests.    

When American democracy, its human rights situation and its election system urgently need improvement, the U.S. should mind its own business. Using values diplomacy to impose sanctions on others only produces undesirable results.

In more serious cases, when U.S. values diplomacy focuses on countering China’s growing influence, conflict in values between East and West could become acute, which is harmful to the peace and stability of the whole world. 

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