At a meeting in Alaska last week Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan beclowned themselves in front of the Chinese. During a press conference they decided to use a brief ceremonial statement to tongue-lash, with soothing Diplospeak, the Chinese over their brutal oppression of the Uighur minority, the destruction of Hong Kong’s political freedom, and the intensifying threats against Taiwan.
The pair didn’t have time to bask in their moral courage because the Chinese representatives unloaded on them with an absurd caricature of the United States straight out of Howard Zinn and Mother Jones. The most preposterous charge was this howler: “The fact is that there are many problems with the United States,” said one diplomat, “regarding human rights, which is admitted by the U.S. itself,” including its long, bloody “democracy-promotion” wars in the Middle East. And as the denizens of a culture famous for its obsession with “face”––public prestige––the Chinese weren’t happy about being dry-gulched in front of the international press.
This episode illustrates how feckless is our stale superstition about the power of “diplomatic engagement,” particularly when our rival is a ruthless, oppressive tyrant that cares nothing for our “rules-based order” other than as a tool for gaming it for its own geopolitical advantage. But Blinken, instead of walking out of the meeting and flying back to D.C.––a response that would have gotten China’s attention––in response feebly confirmed the truth of the accusations, but rationalized that at least we don’t “ignore them” or “pretend they don’t exist” or “sweep them under the rug.”
Recognize that tone? It’s the West’s preemptive cringe, its readiness to make a virtue out of self-doubt and self-criticism, as though the rest of the world prizes what Churchill called “unwarranted self-abasement” as much as we do. But more often than not, that sort of self-flagellation is a sign of weakness, a failure of confidence in the goodness of our civilization. Given China’s current success in pushing its hegemonic ambitions, this is not a time for projecting weakness.
Indeed, this reflex of guilt has characterized the West in general for over a century. George Orwell commented on it in 1941, noting how leftist and pacifist intellectuals in Britain were undermining the people’s morale: “England perhaps is the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman, and it is a duty to snigger at every English institution.” Even the “Blimps,” the patriotic middle classes, were starting to lose their nerve.
Over the years this dangerous impulse has spread beyond the intellectuals, becoming a reflexive received wisdom that signaled sophisticated, nuanced thinking in contrast to simplistic “cowboy” realists. Jimmy Carter, elected in the aftermath of Watergate and the abandonment of Viet Nam, made it the theme of his administration. In his inaugural address, Carter spoke of “recent mistakes,” advised Americans not to “dwell on remembered glory,” and told us that “even our great nation has its recognized limits” and can only “simply do its best.” A few years later came his “crisis of confidence” speech, its tenor giving it the nickname the “malaise speech.”
The wages of that timidity and lack of faith in our own goodness were the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, the fallout from which we are still dealing with over 40 years later, and the Soviet Union’s rampage of adventurism in Latin America, Afghanistan, and Africa that was checked only during the Reagan administration.
To paraphrase Virgil, “Men are weak because they appear to be weak.”
Barack Obama endorsed the same interpretation of the U.S. as flawed with historical crimes and in need of some restorative humility. In a 2007 Foreign Affairs article, he condemned our counter-terrorism policies for failing to “behave in ways that reflect the decency and aspirations of the American people.” Of course, our first duty is to protect the security and interests of the American people, not virtue-signal their “decency” or stroke their “aspirations.” But to Obama, we are just another “exceptional” nation among many, and one that needs to use its power and wealth to benefit other peoples “not in the spirit of a patron but in the spirit of a partner.” But what about when our “partners” sacrifice our interests to advance their own?
In 2009 came the infamous “Cairo speech,” in which the president of the United States, with jihadist Muslim Brothers sitting in the front row, flattered Islam’s alleged creative influence on the Renaissance, along with other historical inventions. The source of “tensions” in the region, Obama explained, were not violent jihadist attacks and the traditional doctrines that spurred them, but rather Western “colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold war in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations.”
This description embodies the prime fallacy of characterizing global behavior and events as mere reactions to America’s behavior, as though the world’s leaders and people do not have agency and their own aims and goods that they often pursue by exploiting ours, as we saw during the Cold War. And its historical malfeasance to talk about the baleful effects of “colonialism” in the Middle East, where the biggest imperial hegemon and only colonialist power until 1920 was the Muslim Ottoman Empire.
This tradition of self-loathing and apology is what Donald Trump campaigned against and ended. America does not need to apologize or defer to the judgment of transnational bureaucracies and globalist authorities. He stopped deferring to our “allies” who shelter under our military power and scold us for our misdeeds, then pursue their own interests even when they clash with ours. By leaving the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris Climate Accords, Trump sent a message that the United States would no longer determine its actions by what the Davoisie and Brussels thought, but by what served first the interests and security of the sovereign American people. Trump no longer would seek the approval or plaudits of our rivals and enemies, or defer to their supposed higher wisdom. America would determine its own fate.
So Trump acted, and let actions speak louder than blustering, toothless condemnations. He started pushing back on China’s abuses of global financial institutions such as the World Trade Organization by putting tariffs on Chinese exports. He didn’t need to make a show of virtue-signaling to a rival’s face, as our hapless diplomats did last week when they didn’t challenge the Chinese diplomats’ patent lies about the United States, all recycled from the books, opinion pages, and media outlets of our left-wing media.
And how didn’t our diplomats know that it is a major blunder to publicly criticize a touchy rival when you have no intention of following through by putting actions behind words; when you are not even prepared to respond to such falsehoods; and finally answer by trying to convince brutal realists that conceding the truth of lies is actually a sign of strength? The alleged bumbling amateur Donald Trump was much savvier than that, maybe because he came from the real world of action and accountability rather than the world of magical thinking and mantric phrases like “the rules-based order” that maintains “global stability.”
So what’s the message that our friends and allies alike will take from the Biden administration’s embarrassing display? That this administration will, like Jimmy Carter’s and Barack Obama’s, reverse the wisdom of Teddy Roosevelt and talk big but carry a little stick. No wonder Xi and Vlad are licking their chops.