Shortly after Joe Biden took office in January 2021, he delivered a major foreign policy speech setting out his vision for the United States’ place in the world. He vowed to rebuild the country’s alliances and restore its moral leadership after the tumult of Donald Trump’s presidency to confront the advancing threat from authoritarian powers such as China and Russia.
“America is back,” he declared, and he promised that the United States would “again lead not just by the example of our power but the power of our example”.
Yet the power of that example has been repeatedly undermined by the failure of US political leaders to tackle the country’s domestic problems, including racial injustice and worsening gun violence. This plays into the hands of American adversaries like China, whose propaganda highlights the deaths of young children in American school shootings and the police killings of Black Americans to advance the Communist Party’s agenda and what it claims are the comparative advantages of its own political system.
In the hours after the massacre at a school in Uvalde, Texas, on 24 May, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin offered his condolences to the families of the victims, but then pivoted directly to what he presented as the systemic failures of American democracy and, therefore, the hypocrisy of Washington’s criticism of China’s human rights abuses. “Over the past 25 years, the federal government has failed to promulgate a single gun control act,” Wang said. “Nearly 60 years ago Martin Luther King Jr delivered his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech and today we still have to face a brutal reality where people like George Floyd can’t even breathe.”
He urged the US to “show earnest care to the human rights of its own people” and “deeply reflect upon why it has become a country with the most serious gun violence in the world, where children and teens are 15 times more likely to die from gunfire than their peers in 31 other high-income countries”.
This is not a new tactic. There is a long tradition in states such as China and Russia of trying to divert attention from criticism of their own abuses by pointing out failings elsewhere, a practice that is sometimes described as “whataboutism”. In practice, this means that in response to questions about the mass incarceration and systemic persecution of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, for example, Chinese officials might bring up the US detention of Muslims at Guantanamo Bay, or the images of migrant children being held in cages on the US southern border. When a US State Department official denounced China’s crackdown on civil society in Hong Kong on Twitter in May 2020, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying replied with three words: “I can’t breathe.”
During the Cold War, Soviet propaganda focused heavily on segregation and the history of racial inequality in the US. In part, this was an attempt to convince its own citizens of the evils of the capitalist American government, but it also helped with outreach to third countries, particularly in post-colonial societies in Asia and Africa, where the Soviet government presented itself somewhat spuriously as the true defender of equal rights around the world.
Indeed, in 1952, a US government legal brief assessing the national security implications of the landmark civil rights case known as Brown vs Board of Education, which challenged the constitutionality of racial segregation in American public schools, found that racial discrimination was having “an adverse effect upon our relations with other countries” and providing “grist for the Communist propaganda mills”. It even raised doubts “among friendly nations as to the intensity of our devotion to the democratic faith”, the government’s lawyers wrote.
Amid warnings that a new Cold War is under way, with rival blocs once again beginning to take shape, American politicians would be well-advised to re-read that advice and reflect on the grist they are offering those propaganda mills today. The repeated failure to take meaningful action on gun control and racial injustice is not just a domestic political issue for the United States, but a gift to the country’s adversaries around the world.
[See also: The toxic emotional symbolism of guns in America]