A renewed focus on values will present difficult trade-offs for the next administration, but demonstrating consistency in its approach to democracy and human rights will be critical.
Donald Trump entered the White House determined to scale back the US’s international commitments and embrace a more assertive, transactional approach to foreign policy, one that put ‘America First’. One side-effect of this has been the downgrading of support for democracy and human rights in US foreign policy – and as a shared priority with its long-standing allies. Over time, though, his administration has increased its use of human rights-based sanctions, albeit in a highly selective manner. In its most important geopolitical relationship, with China, the president’s transactional approach has gradually given ground as his administration – especially Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – and also Congress narrow in on the anti-democratic ideology of the Chinese Communist Party and its violations of human rights. The ‘values turn’ in US foreign policy looks likely to continue regardless of the outcome of November’s presidential election, even if singling out President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party does not. This will create a series of foreign policy dilemmas for the next administration that, if not carefully managed, could set back the prospects of any easing of tensions between the US and China.
A selective embrace of democracy and human rights
The Trump administration has worn its ambivalence to human rights on its sleeve, but Washington’s selective embrace of democracy and human rights has a long history. Under Bill Clinton’s presidency, the US failed to heed warnings of genocide in Rwanda, but intervened (late) in the conflict in Bosnia to force all parties to the negotiating table and bring an end to ethnic cleansing by Bosnia’s Serbian leaders. Following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, under the administration of George W. Bush, the US’s global reputation was severely harmed as evidence emerged that the US government had authorized the use of torture tactics against prisoners held at Abu Ghraib. By the time Barack Obama took office in 2009, democracy promotion had become tainted by its association with the violent disorder that had followed the toppling of Saddam Hussein and regime change in Iraq. In 2011 the US agreed to the NATO-led intervention in Libya’s civil war. However, the ensuing descent into chaos meant that the US grew increasingly wary of calls to use military force to intervene in sovereign states for the purposes of protecting civilians. In 2013 Obama threatened to respond with military force if Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people. But when Assad proceeded to cross this stated ‘red line’, Obama did not follow through. The decision not to enforce the red line came to be seen by many as his defining foreign policy failure.
Trump has reasserted America’s sovereignty and been selective in his support for human rights, especially where he has sought to forge deals with autocrats.
Under President Trump’s leadership, the US has stepped away from multilateral cooperation on human rights. It withdrew from the UN Human Rights Council in 2018, a decision that recalled George W. Bush’s opposition to the body’s establishment in 2006. The Trump administration has also stepped up its attacks on the International Criminal Court (ICC), a court that the US has never joined but which, under the Obama administration, it had supported. In June 2020, in response to the Court’s investigation of alleged abuses by US service personnel in the conflict in Afghanistan, President Trump issued an executive order authorizing asset freezes and imposing family entry bans not on the alleged perpetrators of war crimes, but on ICC officials. Most recently, in September, the US government announced that it had designated ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda and another official from the Office of the Prosecutor for sanctions.
Trump has reasserted America’s sovereignty and been selective in his support for human rights, especially where he has sought to forge deals with autocrats. The fact that little has come of the president’s pursuit of these trademark deals has not deterred him. He has boasted that he gets along well with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, but over the last four years Washington’s relationship with Moscow has deteriorated. The US has withdrawn from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty; it maintains the sanctions against Russia imposed in response to the annexation of Crimea in 2014; and warnings remain of Russian attempts to interfere in the 2020 US presidential election. In his on-again, off-again dealings with Kim Jong-un, Trump turned a blind eye to North Korea’s well-documented human rights abuses; but his summit diplomacy has not brought about the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Trump has openly acknowledged that he refrained from imposing human rights sanctions against China for its practice of forcibly detaining Uighurs in camps because he did not want to undermine trade talks with Beijing. But the phase-one agreement reached in January 2020 has done little to alter China’s trade practices; and China has not thus far met its commitment to increase purchases of US goods in line with the terms of the deal.
Where the Trump administration has emphasized human rights, it has done so very selectively. That the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) concluded under the Obama administration expressly did not address human rights abuses in Iran was one of the reasons given by Trump to withdraw the US from the deal. But under his administration, the US has continued to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia, and has provided logistical support to the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen that has killed thousands of civilians, despite bipartisan congressional pressure to end US involvement in the conflict. And, it has been cautious in its approach to sanctioning the Saudi regime for the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. (In the following month the US imposed sanctions on 17 Saudi officials, the most senior of these being a former close adviser to the crown prince.)
In 2017 Trump was swift to congratulate Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on the outcome of the national referendum that gave the head of state sweeping new constitutional powers. And in forging a connection with President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, he has turned a blind eye to the killings committed in the latter’s war on illegal drugs.
But, despite President Trump’s attempts to be purely transactional, his administration has increasingly made human rights promotion a foreign policy priority. For this, sanctions have been the instrument of choice. Sanctions have served multiple purposes: they signal moral opprobrium and can be costly for those on the receiving end, but in many cases sanctions have also served as a substitute for stronger measures to stop human rights abuses. By the end of 2019 at least 190 individuals and entities had been sanctioned under the authority of the Global Magnitsky Act, passed by Congress in 2016, with 96 targeted in that year alone. In June 2020, more than nine years after the onset of civil war in Syria, and more than 500,000 deaths, the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act came into force. The US has since imposed a series of new sanctions, drawing on this and other Syria-related sanctions authorities, on government officials and business leaders linked to the Assad regime. And in October the US again resorted to sanctions, this time targeting eight Belarusian officials in connection with the fraudulent re-election of Aliaksandr Lukashenka and the subsequent violent crackdown on protesters.
China and the turn to values in US foreign policymaking
The most consequential shift in the Trump administration’s focus on values has been in its policy towards China. Over the past several months, US policy discourse has focused in on China’s domestic human rights abuses against the Uighur population who have been placed in ‘re-education’ camps in Xinjiang, its repression of democracy in Hong Kong, and – significantly – on the Chinese Communist Party and its alleged role in perpetuating these human rights abuses. The hardening of public attitudes in the context of the coronavirus pandemic has also paved the way for a harder line on China. Polling during the summer of 2020 found that 73 per cent of Americans held an unfavourable view of China. This creates the prospect of a broad-spectrum confrontation with China.
Several factors have drawn America’s focus increasingly towards China, and especially towards its use of surveillance technology and repression of human rights. As China’s share of the world economy has grown, and competition between the US and China has heated up, the prospect that geopolitical rivalry would spill over to include fundamental differences related to ideology and values has been considerable. Even before Trump was elected, US officials had become acutely aware of the potential challenge China poses to US influence. Great powers exert a unique influence on international politics, and part of this influence is a product of the domestic values that are reflected through their external engagement.
Trump has further stoked tensions between the US and China over the past months, including through his references to COVID-19 as ‘the China virus’, in what critics see as an attempt to deflect attention from the scale of the ongoing crisis in the US.
Some analysts and former officials, among them Thomas Christensen and Kurt M. Campbell, have argued convincingly that a Cold War analogy is not the right one for understanding the US–China confrontation, but that China’s particular form of authoritarianism will nonetheless exert a pull towards autocracy. Christensen argues that China’s attempts to undermine democracy have been limited to Hong Kong and Taiwan, both areas that China claims as part of its territory. China’s exports of facial recognition technologies and training of foreign powers in surveillance technologies could strengthen authoritarian states, he argues, but the fact that China has not attempted to undermine other democracies is a key factor that differentiates the increasingly ideological confrontation between the US and China from that between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
But even if China does not seek to alter the internal character of other democracies, the sheer fact of its global influence in international and regional institutions has meant that China’s values are increasingly prominent in international affairs. Campbell, too, has argued that China’s fusion of authoritarian capitalism and digital surveillance will mean that the international system is pulled towards autocracy. For this reason, values should remain a focus of US foreign policy, especially in its dealings with China.
China currently heads four of the 15 specialized agencies of the UN, and it also exerts significant influence through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Few apart from the most careful US China-watchers differentiate between these last two institutions. And the fact that the AIIB is broadly aligned with Western standards for international development assistance has been overshadowed by the widely held perception, particularly in the West, that China is pursuing ‘debt diplomacy’ through the BRI and fostering a form of dependence on the part of borrowing states.
Other factors have also paved the way for a new US focus on China’s authoritarian values. Chief among these is the emergence, during the Trump administration, of a bipartisan consensus on the need to take a tougher line on China. The foundation for this consensus was initially forged around the shared belief that China had failed to comply with international rules on trade, that it was stealing intellectual property, and that it was not playing by the same rules as the US and Europe on the critical matter of subsidies to state-owned enterprises. This consensus has over time given rise to a more comprehensive focus on the nature of the challenge that China presents in international politics. During Trump’s first term, the US has drawn attention to China’s surveillance state. The national security threat that Chinese technology companies present to Western democracies and the individual privacy rights of their citizens has taken centre stage in US policy discussions on China. Washington has effectively disputed, too, Beijing’s assertion that these companies are independent from the Chinese Communist Party.
The COVID-19 crisis has further accelerated tensions between the US and China. The widespread perception that Chinese authorities had withheld information about the coronavirus in the early stages of its discovery in late 2019 quickly became politicized in a US domestic environment marked by President Trump’s initial denial of the pandemic and his subsequent catastrophic mishandling of the US coronavirus response. Trump has further stoked tensions between the US and China over the past months, including through his references to COVID-19 as ‘the China virus’, in what critics see as an attempt to deflect attention from the scale of the ongoing crisis in the US.
Meanwhile, China’s imposition of the Hong Kong National Security Law at the end of June 2020 triggered a backlash from the US and the UK in particular. And reports of the detention of at least 1 million Uighurs in detention camps in Xinjiang have all contributed to a hardening of US public and elite attitudes towards China.
US political scrutiny of China has thus intensified in the months leading up to the US presidential election. In June 2020, Congress coalesced around a human rights agenda, passing legislation authorizing sanctions against Chinese officials for the detention and mass surveillance of Uighurs. Congress also approved the removal of Hong Kong’s special economic status, and imposed individual sanctions on key individuals through the Hong Kong Autonomy Act. Perhaps the most consequential shift has been the Trump administration’s focus on China’s Communist Party. This was evident in Secretary Pompeo’s speech at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in July , in which he narrowed in on the national security threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party.
What lies ahead
A central challenge for a return to a values-based US foreign policy will be the need for the next administration to demonstrate consistency in its approach to human rights.
This will be difficult to achieve at a time when democracy is in retreat among some of the US’s most important strategic partners. India is one such example. As tension between the US and China increases, India’s strategic importance to the US will continue to grow. But India’s own backsliding on democracy is concerning: notably it dropped 10 places, to 51, in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index for 2019. It is important that the next US administration is rigorous in its naming of democratic regression and attacks on individual rights. It should, though, also devise a principled but pragmatic strategy for promoting human rights that seeks to integrate clear incentives for reform in its diplomacy.
The first step is to develop a clear strategy that relies on well-established practices for identifying human rights violations. The US will need to evaluate carefully how to insert human rights discourse into its diplomacy. It should seek to avoid the kind of costly escalation of tit-for-tat sanctions that it has experienced with China, and which have revealed the absence of a clear strategy for sequencing diplomacy and human rights sanctions.
In its policy towards China, the US should focus specifically on policies and behaviours that violate established universal human rights standards, rather than more broadly on the ideology of China’s Communist Party. This provides a better way forward because it makes it possible to designate the conditions under which sanctions will be lifted. It also guards against the risk of being drawn into intractable and costly ideological confrontation.
The next US administration will also need to re-evaluate its multilateral commitments. Renewing the US commitment to international engagement is important both symbolically and practically. As presidential candidate, Joe Biden has proposed convening a ‘summit of democracies’, and one of the key objectives is for the world’s leading democracies to coordinate their strategies for managing China’s rise. Similarly, the UK government has proposed a ‘D-10’ grouping of democracies, to include the G7 plus South Korea, India and Australia, to focus on issues like 5G and on securing supply chains, in a clear response to the challenge presented by tensions with China.
Regardless who sits in the White House over the coming four years, the next stage of US global engagement is likely to see a renewed focus on values.
The opportunity to work with like-minded groups of states is compelling, especially in an uncertain and competitive global context. But pursuing multilateral forums of this kind should be balanced against the risk that doing so will alienate and antagonize states that find themselves excluded. Reassuring those outside such frameworks that the intention is to enhance rather than diminish the prospects for broader cooperation will be essential. Groupings of democracies may serve as an important part of an overall strategy, but these should be pursued alongside inclusive multilateral institutions. The latter are also essential for managing the most pressing global concerns – whether the protection of human rights or tackling the demands around climate change, international trade and technology policy, and public health.
Regardless who sits in the White House over the coming four years, the next stage of US global engagement is likely to see a renewed focus on values. A robust and articulate embrace of democracy and human rights would be welcomed by America’s allies and also by many civil society organizations in states where democracy is receding, and would send a strong signal to adversaries as well as allies that the US is ‘back’.
As human rights and democracy are elevated in US foreign policy, this will also lead to intense scrutiny of the US’s record at home. So it is critical that the next administration should seek to rebuild unity, address racial injustice and reduce deep-rooted inequalities among its own citizens. The failure to do this will bolster charges of hypocrisy, and further compromise the US’s global standing and influence in the years ahead. As always, foreign policy begins at home.
Structural change in the international system compels America to think in new ways about its role in the world. The US is now confronted by a rising China whose political system and domestic values diverge radically from its own, and from those of many of its closest democratic partners and allies. This creates a potentially dangerous and challenging environment at a time when the need to find forward-looking solutions for common global challenges is urgent.
It is imperative that the US work closely with its European partners, and that it extend this cooperation beyond the transatlantic space to also include other democracies that will be critical in managing China’s rise, especially Japan, South Korea, India and Australia. This is both necessary and fitting in a world where power is diffused but challenges are global and the upholding of shared values is vital. Ensuring that liberal values are fully integrated and clearly articulated is essential, and this will require the US and its democratic partners to hold each other accountable on these values. But this must happen alongside efforts to achieve internationally agreed goals on climate change, to recommit to multilateral cooperation on health, and to ensure sustainable and inclusive global growth.
Ensuring that liberal values are fully integrated and clearly articulated is essential, and this will require the US and its democratic partners to hold each other accountable on these values.
It will also be critical that the US works closely with its democratic partners to devise and enable realistic, attractive and competitive alternatives to help meet the security and economic needs of states and peoples across the Middle East, Latin America and Africa. Success on this dimension will depend, vitally, on the ability of the US and its democratic partners to offer and enable realistic and effective alternatives that also reflect the standards and values they embrace at home.
Managing these global challenges will have a critical impact on national and international peace, security and prosperity. These are not neutral domains or value-free zones: human rights and values – including individual freedoms and privacy – are at the core of each of these. The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored – at often shocking scale – the urgent need for competent state interventions and capable leadership. It has heightened awareness, too, of the need to ensure that state intervention is infused with respect for individual rights.