But America is not a foreign country. That’s home And for U.S. diplomats, it means that life at the moment is very strange.
Widespread protests in the United States, triggered by the death of George Floyd, a black man in police custody, have exposed America’s racial and economic divisions and its extraordinary political polarization. The scene of ongoing chaos and violence, said current and former diplomats, makes it far more difficult for American representatives abroad to do their jobs.
“Our diplomats are accustomed to expressing concerns about human rights violations of other countries. Today they were asked by foreign governments to explain ours, “said Molly Montgomery, a former Foreign Service officer whose positions included Afghanistan and Bosnia-Herzegovina.” For many diplomats who have joined the State Department to promote American values such as democracy, the rule of law, and human rights abroad, this is a moment of deep sadness and soul searching. ”
Seeing US police and other security forces tearing poison gas and beating protesters is playing on television screens across the planet, offering irresistible fodder to foreign enemies who have long accused the United States of hypocrisy. Let alone the human rights record whose orders are worse than anything seen on American streets – some of these countries are now mocking US officials.
On Saturday, when State Department spokesman Morgan Ortagus tweeted criticism of China’s stern efforts to end the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, Hua Chunying, a spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, fired back with three words: “I can’t breathe.” That was Floyd’s expression when a Minneapolis police officer arrested him by pressing his neck.
This week is the 31st anniversary of the Chinese communist government’s pro-democracy massacre at Tiananmen Square. State Department human rights officials have urged senior diplomats to post videos of themselves holding candles in honor of the dead, whose memories of Chinese leaders have been trying to erase their official history. State Department officials, according to an email obtained by POLITICO, asked fellow diplomats, NGO activists and others to share videos on social media with the hashtag #TiananmenVigil.
But already, U.S. comments about Tiananmen, like a tweet from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, is being laughed at. Respondents, some of them Americans, posted video clips, among them, peaceful demonstrators outside the White House which were severely dispersed on Monday so Trump could take his picture in a church. The announcement that Pompeo would meet with survivors of Tiananmen Square on Tuesday also met with eyerolls.
Requested for comment, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said there was no comparison between the challenges we face here at home and those placed on the people of China and Hong Kong by the Hong Kong government and the People’s Republic of China.
“WE diplomats around the world are working hard to represent the United States during this time by communicating our values in ways that are culturally appropriate wherever they are,” the spokesman added. “We are proud of the work they do. and we are here to support them in their efforts. ”
But some US diplomats and former US diplomats, some of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, said that from the start of Trump’s presidency, they had to work harder to justify American policy.
Trump has articulated a “First American” approach to the world which means, in essence, emphasizing the interests of the American economy, exploring allies and enemies on issues including the security pact, and expressing strong insults to multilateral institutions.
The Trump team is also more likely than the previous administration, critics point out, to use human rights issues selectively. U.S. President often questioning human rights issues when dealing with enemies, while raising them quietly, if at all, with allies. But under the Trump administration, long-standing differences have become a yawning gap: It is destroying Iran for imprisoning women’s rights activists, for example, but it says almost nothing when Saudi Arabia does the same.
The perception of hypocrisy has weakened those limited efforts, and American dystopic scenes beamed onto foreign TVs and smartphone screens only deepened the problem, U.S. diplomats said. “I am afraid next time we try to debate with foreign governments for fair treatment of protesters,” one of them said.
Daniel Russel, a former senior Obama administration official who deals with Asia, said that American diplomats have traditionally been able to acknowledge US struggles when faced with foreign hearings. However, that low humility, combined with a sense of U.S. credibility – that America can be counted on to help the oppressed in other countries as they fight for democracy, human rights and other ideals.
Under Trump, a president who has repeatedly praised authoritarian leaders around the world, that credibility has been damaged, many US diplomats and are currently debating. Trump has urged officials to shoot at looters and “dominate” disobedient protesters, while threatening to send the US military if he feels they have not done enough to quell the riots sparked by Floyd’s death. In other countries, releasing the military to domestic protesters was seen as tripwire which would make U.S. diplomats scrambling to denounce whether civil unrest could lead to civil war or mass atrocities.
“The willingness of people in other countries to stand with you depends largely on whether they believe you are defending something,” Russel said. “And if America’s moral standing decreases, her influence in countries like China will decrease.”
Some blowback is the same as online trolling from the government with almost zero human rights credibility. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, whose Islamist government opposes the election, banned Twitter and violently suppresses popular protests, recently tweeting a US press statement about Iran marked in red instead of condemning America for racism. “Some don’t think #BlackLivesMatter,” the Iranian diplomat wrote sharply. Pompeo snapped back to him, “You hanged homosexuals, stoned women and exterminated Jews.”
But even relatively friendly countries or government agencies argue about American protests and their underlying cause: police brutality against people of color. Large and small demonstrations in honor of Floyd have been held in countries from Britain to New Zealand.
African Union officials are among those who demand justice. “This is too much. We may be black, but we are human too, “AU official Kwesi Quartey said the word. “Africa demands a full investigation into this murder.”
After a long and awkward pause in responding to reporters’ questions, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his country was watching the program in the U.S. in “horror and fear“While also noting that racism is an endemic problem in Canadian society.
Even the Secretary General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres has weighed, warned, through a spokesman, against the excessive use of force by American police. “Complaints must be heard, but they must be expressed in a peaceful manner and the authorities must show restraint in responding to the demonstrators,” the spokesman said.
In the midst of all this attitude, some US envoys abroad have taken an unusual step in commenting on American domestic problems.
The US Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Brian Nichols, cautiously expressed his anger at Floyd’s death while linking him with long-standing anger in the host country for kidnappings in Zimbabwe and abuse related to labor leaders, opposition activists and others.
“As an African-American, as long as I remember, I know that my rights and my body do not fully belong to me,” Nichols write. “I also always knew that America, conceived in freedom, always aspires to be better – a city that shines on a hill – and that is why I have dedicated my life to its service.”
Nichols’ remarks were partly driven by Zimbabwe’s anger over confusing comments by White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien. O’Brien ever declared, without proof, that Zimbabwe is among US enemies who are trying to exploit US protests to undermine American democracy.
When the Australian government complain that US police officers had attacked Australian journalists outside the White House, U.S. ambassador in Canberra, Arthur B. Culvahouse Jr., issued statement that, in the eyes of some critics, did not say much.
“We take seriously the mistreatment of journalists, as do all people who take democracy seriously,” Culvahouse said. “We remain firm in our commitment to protect journalists and ensure equal justice under the law for all.”
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