As protests spread across America and the police and government respond, some watch with horror and some watch with glee. But either way, one cannot help but feel that our world order – Pax Americana – is on the brink.
Ever since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, it became the de facto rallying cry of civilized nations across the world. Chief among those was the United States.
Though nations might have failed to live up to the lofty principles in that declaration, the United States included, it was still an ideal for which to strive. It was what separated “us” from “them” – the despots and tyrants who sought to enslave their subjects while they amassed personal wealth and power.
So when the United States declared that North Korea was a state sponsor of terror or imposed sanctions on it for its violent repression of human rights, it was easy for civilized nations to side with the United States. While North Korea’s nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction might be a threat to the state of peace in East Asia and the world at large, that alone is insufficient for much of the world to care.
What does it matter to the average person in Buenos Aires or London that North Korea possesses weapons of mass destruction? For the vast majority of people in the world, North Korea poses no threat.
However, the entire world is moved to compassion when they see images of malnourished North Korean children. They are horrified when they see pictures of tortured political prisoners that are hand-drawn by the North Korean refugees who have managed to flee their country.
This is why even though people around the world recognize that China is a formidable nation, they are rightfully horrified to see repression and state-sponsored ethnic erasure in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong.
The blueprint for Pax Americana was the Atlantic Charter, initially drawn up in 1941. Even before Nazi Germany had been defeated, the Atlantic Charter presumed that in a post-fascist world, the foundation of a new global order would be based on international cooperation and the freedom of peoples to choose their own forms of government – in other words, a world governed by freedom and democracy.
The United States is by no means a nation of angels. From its original sin of the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans, through to slavery, the internment of Japanese-Americans and most recently, the disastrous wars in the Middle East, the United States has much to answer for.
However, unlike the Soviet Union or the People’s Republic of China – or virtually any other imperial or great power that existed throughout history – the United States’ authority stems not only from its destructive capabilities, but also from the ideals it strives to pursue.
After all, if raw power and money alone were enough to enthrall the masses, the world would be speaking in Mandarin today.
The preamble to the United States Constitution says: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
It doesn’t say “a perfect union,” but “a more perfect union.” What that means is that the idea of the United States is an ongoing experiment. It continues to strive for continual improvements, not to revel in its past accomplishments. But what happens when the United States no longer believes in its own scripture?
In recent days, the world has witnessed the dark side of American law enforcement toward ethnic minorities, most notably African-Americans. Particularly shocking was the American police beating, arresting, shooting and tear-gassing of peaceful protesters and journalists.
Those are the actions of a police state, not the “Beacon of the Free World.” Ditto, when a sitting American president and a sitting American senator publicly call for the deployment of American troops on American soil to suppress Americans exercising their right to assemble and to express themselves.
Already, pro-China legislators in the Legislative Council of Hong Kong have seized this opportunity to decry what they call Western double standards. Why, they ask, do people slam Hong Kong for its suppression of protesters when similar measures are being deployed in the United States? Why they ask, is Hong Kong criticized more harshly than the United States when – unlike the latter – Hong Kong never deployed the military to restore order?
As cynical as those questions may be, they bring up an important point. What leg does the West have to stand on to criticize those who violate human rights when Western governments, particularly the United States, have proven themselves to be no different from the Hong Kong government?
These questions will not be asked just by Hong Kong legislators. Every despot will be asking the same questions. And for the first time, the leader of the free world will not be able to answer them – at least, not without feeling like a rank hypocrite.
The United States is still the world’s most powerful nation. Its military and economic power is not in question. In that regard, American leadership is intact. The fundamental problem is that Washington has lost the moral argument for its leadership.
And without this moral argument, how different is the United States from Russia or China?
If great power politics simply boils down to realpolitik, and the matter of ideology is of no significance, why should anyone bother checking in with Washington before buying Iranian oil? Or why should anyone give any weight to American sanctions against North Korea?
For all peoples around the world who cherish liberty, the words and images coming out of the United States over the past few days have been devastating. Our hearts break for the death of George Floyd and countless other African Americans who have been killed by institutionalized racism. Our hearts also break for the loss of the global champion of human rights.
Will America recover? Whether or not President Donald Trump is re-elected in November, it’s likely that the United States will. After all, if Germany was able to recover from the Nazis, the United States can step back from its present precipice.
But in the meantime, the world has become a darker place.
Lee Jong-won, also known as John Lee (aka @koreanforeigner on Twitter) is a blogger, freelance writer and columnist whose work has appeared in NK News and who has commented for Channel News Asia, the South China Morning Post and La Croix. He lives in South Korea. Email: email@example.com