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.