Published: 00:39, May 20, 2024
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Washington’s double standards undermine its moral authority
By David Cottam

Americans like to think of their country as a world leader, a beacon of democracy, and a model for other countries to emulate. There’s only one problem with this. For any country to set itself on a pedestal in this way, it needs to earn international respect. This requires integrity, principles and consistency. I was brought up to believe these were indeed American characteristics, as personified by Hollywood’s upright heroes played by the likes of Jimmy Stewart, Gregory Peck and John Wayne. I still believe that most Americans aspire to these qualities in their everyday lives. In the world of American politics, however, these qualities no longer seem to be quite so obvious. Sadly, double standards often now appear to be the new normal.

There’s a post currently doing the social media rounds that illustrates the issue perfectly. It compares the X/Twitter comments of three US senators writing in 2019 at the height of the Hong Kong student protests, and again in 2024 at the height of the US student protests.

The first pair of comments is from Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee:

2019 (HK): “It is unacceptable for the Hong Kong Police Force to require the arrest of all on-campus protestors in a bid to deescalate the violence. This is not how a free and fair government acts — it is how a police state operates.”  

2024 (US): “Reports indicate that leftists are joining pro-Hamas protests. Their goal is to spread disorder and violence on campuses to advance their liberal agenda. These are not peaceful protesters. They are terrorist sympathizers colleges and universities should not negotiate with.”

The second pairing is from Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas:

2019 (HK): “Hong Kong’s authorities have turned a place of higher learning into a place of violence by trapping student demonstrators on their own campus.”

2024 (US): “If the campus police can’t do it, the schools should bring in local police. If the local police can’t do it, then yes — the National Guard should restore law & order. Allowing deeply troubled anti-Semites to take over campuses and threaten Jewish students is unacceptable.”

Third, this is what Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri had to say:

2019 (HK): “In #HongKong, government police continue their assault on universities into the night, making mass arrests and now threatening live fire against largely defenseless students. Beijing is pushing Hong Kong into a state of siege. #StandWithHongKong”

2024 (US): “Expel the students. Fire the faculty. Send the National Guard to protect Jewish students on campus.”

These contrasting attitudes toward Hong Kong and US student protesters may seem bewildering to impartial observers, especially when you recall the violence of the Hong Kong protests compared with the much more peaceful American ones. It’s clear that very different standards are being used to determine what is acceptable at home and abroad. Another example of this, much reported on these pages, is Washington’s fierce condemnation of Hong Kong’s new national security laws, despite the fact that US laws are remarkably similar and in some areas even more stringent.

Double standards are also apparent in America’s approach to espionage. The US government frequently expresses its outrage at attempts by “malicious actors”, usually referencing China, to spy on American politicians, military installations, businesses and dissidents. This is invariably accompanied by a frenzy of media reports about Chinese spying ingenuity. However, the American outrage is never tempered by the fact that the US is itself a world leader in espionage techniques. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is probably the world’s most sophisticated spying machine. Of course, the US government calls its work “intelligence gathering”, but this is merely a euphemism for exactly the sort of espionage activities it condemns in other countries.

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is probably the world’s most sophisticated spying machine. Of course, the US government calls its work “intelligence gathering”, but this is merely a euphemism for exactly the sort of espionage activities it condemns in other countries

The American government’s double standards over spying pale into insignificance when compared with its approach to military expenditures. The US military-industrial complex has been at the heart of American policy since the end of World War II. At the end of his period in office in 1961, then-US president Dwight D Eisenhower used the term to warn Americans of the dangerous relationship between the country’s military and the arms industry that supplied it. He clearly saw this pairing as a vested interest that exerted a dominant influence on public policy. In a perceptive and statesmanlike speech, Eisenhower warned: “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.” Sadly, his warning was not heeded and defense spending still remains a huge part of the American economy. This was acknowledged in the Pentagon’s 2023 report, which compared China’s large defense budget of $230 billion with the US’ even larger $889 billion. Yet America persists in portraying China, rather than itself, as a threat to peace. The double standards here are based on the clearly false premise that China’s military spending is offensive, whereas American spending is purely defensive.

The hypocrisy of America’s stance on military spending is also exemplified by its current criticisms of China’s exports to Russia. According to US sources, these are nonmilitary exports such as microelectronics, machine tools, telecommunications gear, radar and optical devices, but they are still portrayed as helping Russia in its war with Ukraine. I am no supporter of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and it may well be true that some of these “dual use” items are indirectly helping the Russian war effort, but this is dwarfed by the direct military aid worth billions of dollars that the US is choosing to pump into Ukraine, rather than trying to broker peace. Similarly, the US is sending billions in aid to the Israeli military in support of its attempt to defeat Hamas by systematically destroying large parts of Gaza. To condemn China’s nonmilitary exports to Russia while simultaneously exporting billions in military equipment to both Ukraine and Israel is the ultimate in American government hypocrisy.

It’s a similar story with America’s geopolitical approach to security. Its own security, regarded as sacrosanct, is still protected by the 1823 Monroe Doctrine, which permits no interference by foreign powers in the affairs of the Western Hemisphere. Most famously, this doctrine was invoked in the Cuban crisis of 1962, when Soviet missiles based in Cuba were regarded as an unacceptable provocation. After a tense standoff and fears of nuclear war, the missiles were removed and America’s right to maintain the Western Hemisphere as its own distinct sphere of influence was reinforced. This may sound like a reasonable and justifiable security stance for America to take, until you reflect on how the US has actively opposed other countries wishing to similarly protect their own national security spheres. Despite verbal assurances given to Russia shortly before the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, America has supported the encroachment of NATO into Eastern Europe, effectively removing the buffer zone that had previously eased Russian security concerns. Similarly, the US has insisted on its right to undertake warship navigation exercises in the South China Sea, seemingly oblivious to the fact that any reciprocal action by China in the Caribbean would be seen as hostile provocation.

For a country as successful, confident and patriotic as the US, it may seem baffling why its government demonstrates such double standards. It condemns other countries for acting exactly as America acts — including arresting student protesters, enacting security legislation, conducting espionage, spending huge sums on the military, trading with countries at war, and trying to preserve security within their spheres of influence. Such blatant double standards should concern all fair-minded people in the US. They certainly undermine American moral authority in the world. Yet this obvious truth doesn’t seem to register in Washington. Its “do as I say, not do as I do” approach to international affairs is the antithesis of good leadership. The world and the American people deserve better.

The author is a British historian and former principal of Sha Tin College, an international secondary school in Hong Kong.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.