Stephen M. Walt

China grades America’s human rights conduct

One of the cool things about being as powerful and fortunate as the United States is that you get to preach to other countries about how they ought to behave. In that spirit, the U.S. State Department puts out a human rights report every year, and basically wags its finger at countries that don’t measure ...

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

One of the cool things about being as powerful and fortunate as the United States is that you get to preach to other countries about how they ought to behave. In that spirit, the U.S. State Department puts out a human rights report every year, and basically wags its finger at countries that don’t measure up. Of course, the report tends to go easy on close allies, but it’s still a useful document. Among other things, it provides data that scholars interested in human rights can use to test their ideas about the causes of violations and the policies that might alleviate them.

But as you might expect, the world isn’t just sitting around and passively accepting report cards from Washington anymore. Case in point: China has just released its own human rights report on the United States, and it makes for rather interesting reading. It’s hardly an objective assessment of life in America, of course, but much of the information contained within it is factually accurate. The incidence of gun violence and crime in the U.S. is far above the level of other industrial democracies, and having the world’s highest incarceration rate is not exactly consistent with being the "Land of the Free." 

China’s point is that the United States is being pretty hypocritical in singling out other countries, and maybe we ought to remove the log in our own eye before we start telling everyone else what to do. Add to this the recent bipartisan report confirming that Bush-era officials authorized the widespread use of torture and the fact that none of them has ever been indicted or prosecuted, and American hypocrisy on this score looks even more damning.

The Chinese report may not be objective, and the fact that U.S. leaders authorized torture does not mean Washington hasn’t done plenty of morally admirable things too. But this gap between America’s professed ideals and its actual behavior matters. Not just in moral terms, but in terms of power and global influence too. Smaller and weaker states are more likely to tolerate American primacy if they think the United States is a generally good society and led by individuals who are not just ruthlessly self-interested. They will be more willing to tolerate the asymmetry of power in America’s favor if they think that power is used for the greater good. The more that others view the United States as hypocritical, self-absorbed, and indifferent to others, the more likely they are to ignore U.S. advice and to secretly welcome those moments when the U.S. gets taken down a peg or two.

The 9/11 attacks produced an unusual outpouring of sympathy for the United States ("nous sommes toutes Americains" headlined Le Monde), and we’ve seen a similar reaction in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings. But such expressions of solidarity tend to be fleeting and especially when  U.S. behavior gives opponents an easy way to heighten dissatisfaction with America’s global role. What’s going on here is a struggle for legitimacy in the eyes of the wider world, and it would be foolish to believe that we will win that struggle just because we’re the "good guys." That may be how we see ourselves, but Americans are only 5 percent of the world’s population, and plenty of other people around the world have a rather different view.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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