Politics that eschew moral arguments come across as cold, calculating, and sometimes cynical. In Germany, such an attitude is personified by ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who glosses over many villains with whom business can be done. In the United States, it was Donald Trump who unabashedly held hands with North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong Un, allowed himself to be ensnared by Saudi Arabia’s ruling clique, hardly ever spoke about human rights and winked at Russia’s Vladimir Putin for any election manipulation. Schröder and Trump’s hyperreal politics caused outrage. Rightly.
The new US President, Joe Biden, is of a different caliber. He calls Putin a “killer” who has to “pay a price” for his misdeeds. He criticizes Saudi Arabia as a “pariah state” and has a secret service report published in which the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is accused of having commissioned the murder of the dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi. He accuses the Chinese leadership of committing “genocide” against the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs. Will US foreign and security policy be remoralized with Biden? Does the country base its interests on solid values?
That doesn’t mean denying your own principles
No, it’s not that simple. The USA, Russia and China are major nuclear powers. You have a voice and veto in the UN Security Council. Whether it is a claim to regional spheres of influence or an attempt to make the proliferation of nuclear weapons more difficult, whether in the field of energy, trade or the climate: uncompromising opposition would be to the detriment of everyone. Nobody should be interested in any kind of escalation.
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It does not follow either to be meek or to deny one’s own principles. Human rights rhetoric can and must be offensive at times. But clarity in judgment should not lose its measure. Otherwise, the gap between emotionally charged denunciation and subsequent inaction becomes too big.
The violent repression of around one million Uyghurs in Xinjiang Province is a blatant injustice. People are locked in camps, women are sterilized, and products are made through forced labor. But whether the term “genocide” is appropriate for this, committed with the intention of “destroying a national, ethnic, racial or religious group as such, in whole or in part”, as stated in the UN Convention, is doubtful.
Does the West want to discredit the Chinese system?
Also: Whom does it serve? The Biden administration will also come to terms with the leadership in Beijing on many levels. The genocide charge will have practically no consequences. But that underpins the ideology widespread by the communists, according to which the West wants to discredit the Chinese system in order to gain a strategic advantage. The appeal to morality is primarily instrumental.
Helmut Schmidt once said: “The decisive factor is not the moral argument, but the moral basis of one’s own politics.” Joe Biden should take this to heart. His judgment on the leadership in Russia, China and Saudi Arabia may be perceived as beneficial, especially in contrast to his predecessor in office. Such words are no substitute for wise politics.