As protests over police violence consumed American cities, China’s propagandists seized the opportunity to accuse the United States of hypocrisy. Offended that American politicians from across the political spectrum have repeatedly condemned Chinese human rights abuses, most recently its brutal crackdown in Hong Kong, its officials now line up to charge them with “double standards.”
We’ve been here before when American leaders have spoken out against human rights violations abroad. Back in 1903, a pogrom at Kishineff in the Tsarist Russian Empire led to the massacre of 47 Jews, with 400 others seriously injured. This was just the latest in a long line of abuses against Russia’s Jewish population, ultimately prompting almost two million Jews to seek refuge in the United States at the turn of the 20th century. Their persecution horrified President Theodore Roosevelt, who had also long regarded Russian expansion in East Asia as a threat to American economic interests. Consequently, Roosevelt responded to the Kishineff pogrom by cabling an official petition to the Tsar and issuing an unprecedented personal condemnation of Russia’s oppression of its Jews.
Roosevelt’s actions were opposed by his Secretary of State John Hay, who asked: “What would we do if Russia should protest against mob violence in this country, of which one could hardly open a newspaper without meeting examples?” Hay had a point. In 1903 alone, there were 99 recorded lynchings in the US, the overwhelming majority against black Americans. Hay’s fear was soon realized when Russia’s Ambassador in Washington responded by issuing his own protest against American lynchings. Roosevelt was discomfited by these counteraccusations of racial violence and well aware that they hindered America in “taking the lead on behalf of humanity.”
Roosevelt’s own position on race questions was complex and he was by no means immune to the racial ideas of his time. He was, however, outspoken in condemning racial violence and had denounced lynchings as acts of unmitigated “evil,” even if he did not see how the federal government could intervene. In justifying his diplomatic intervention against Russia, the president would use his “bully pulpit” to educate Americans on their responsibility to first deal with their own “sins,” most damningly “violent race prejudice.” Only by also “striving for our own moral and material betterment” could the United States be true to its “manifest duty” to condemn wrongdoing elsewhere. Ultimately, Roosevelt urged Americans that they must hold a “resolute attitude of protest against every wrong that outraged the civilization of the age, at home or abroad.”
Roosevelt’s condemnation of lynchings made headlines but little was done to stop the practice during his presidency. His own record on race was tarnished by scandal when he dishonorably discharged an entire all-black infantry regiment after unproven allegations of an assault on white residents in Brownsville, Texas. More broadly, during this period the structure of the segregationist regime took shape in the South, sanctioned by the Supreme Court and with few protests from the White House. The president might have spoken out against racial violence but his administration hardly wielded a big stick to address it. Words, divorced from action, were insufficient.
The tension between diplomatic rhetoric and domestic reality became ever more acute as the United States emerged as a global power over the following decades. In the early years of the Cold War, Soviet and Chinese propagandists—seeking to divert international attention from the millions killed by their own political masters—emphasized the disparity between America’s professed democratic ideals and the continued segregationist “Jim Crow” laws and brutality of the Ku Klux Klan in the American South.
For those working to overturn these practices in the US, however, the Cold War competition was a spur for action. During the famous Brown v Board of Education case that declared school segregation unconstitutional, the US Justice Department effectively argued that racial injustice at home was “grist for the Communist propaganda mills” and led to “doubts even among friendly nations as to the intensity of our devotion to the democratic faith.” The passage of the Civil Rights Act was still a decade away, but this was a crucial turning point in dismantling the segregationist regime. When President John F. Kennedy did finally introduce civil rights legislation, he was motivated by the connection between the Cold War and the violent racism on the streets of Birmingham, Alabama that played out on television before an international audience. Geopolitical competition was an important factor in moving the United States toward its own avowed ideals, as the historian Mary Dudziak has cogently argued.
The relationship between America’s foreign policy idealism and its domestic realities is a complex one. But the fact that Americans are free to call out and criticize the deficiencies in their democracy is what distinguishes their country from the dictatorships that denounce it. Authoritarian regimes have always pointed to the ways in which the US falls short of its vaunted values in order to justify their own graver violations of human rights. Xi Jinping’s China—with its attempts to smother Hong Kong’s autonomy and its network of re-education camps that house around a million Uighurs in Xinjiang—is just the latest in a long line.
Nevertheless, if the United States is going to rally the rest of the world’s democracies against these illiberal practices, it cannot be complacent about the need to continue to work for its own “moral and material betterment” at home. The most perceptive presidents, even if often flawed in redressing its problems, have recognized that America’s foreign policy leadership relies on perfecting its own domestic society. Donald Trump has failed to rise to this challenge, doing more to exacerbate domestic tensions than to soothe them. But what has historically separated the United States from its rivals is the country’s capacity to accommodate change and continue to grow. And as the United States gears up for a new geopolitical competition, being open to criticism and demonstrating a willingness to address it will be what separates it from its challengers.