Shared Values and Fist Bump Geopolitics: Biden’s Blurred Vision of Human Rights

Photograph Source: Saudi Press Agency – CC BY 4.0

When the U.S. Government at the highest level criticized Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, because she went to China on a mission to develop opportunities for cooperation with respect to the protection of human rights. The mission had been carefully prepared months earlier by UN staff that had visited China and negotiated the itinerary of the visit, which took occurred in May of this year, it seemed a breakthrough in the sense of a major country opening itself up to this kind of scrutiny with respect to its human rights record. High officials in Washington let it be known in advance that they considered the trip ‘a mistake,’ and expressed consternation that its hyped allegations of ‘genocide’ associated with the treatment of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang were not confirmed by Bachelet, although human rights violations in the province were noted by the High Commissioner in her report on the visit. Establishment-minded China experts pointed to the supposed ‘danger’ of legitimating China’s narrative by the visit and contributing “an important milestone in China’s normative power.” [see Patrizia Zoguo and Lukian Da Bono, “The Steep Cost of Bachelet’s Visit to China,” The Diplomat, June 13, 2022] Critics even observed that such a visit so effectively whitewashed China’s wrongdoing that rather than improve its compliance with human rights would actually have the perverse effect of emboldening China to commit even grosser violations in the future, and this despite China having agreed to establish a variety of continuing interactions with the Geneva-based Office of the High Commissioner, connections no other geopolitical actor has seen fit to negotiate.

I mention China’s effort to enhance its image as a legitimate state as a positive development not deserving the hostile reaction that it received in many sectors of the West, but especially in those quarters that were intent on a new cold war to counter the competitive edge that China was gaining, especially in the world economy and on many technological frontiers of special relevance in the digital age. To seize upon this Chinese initiative, even granting that it was partly motivated by quite legitimate soft power ambitions, is to denigrate efforts to develop an international culture of respect for human rights as an essential foundation for indispensable cooperation in a variety of functional areas ranging from trade to climate change and migration. And let us not overlook American arrogance in relation to human rights, given its refusal to accord economic and social rights the normative status they deserve, and of which China is justly proud of its remarkable record. This acute societal shortcoming in the United States is exhibited to the world by highly visible urban homelessness in the cities of the United States coupled with the unavailability of affordable health care to millions of its own citizens; as well, constitutionally validated gross violations of the right to life due to promiscuous access to assault weaponry for anyone with the cash to make the purchase, and despite a rash on mass school and mall shooting the governing institutions turn their heads away from the carnage.

It is with these considerations in the background that we should assess the Biden mid-July visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia. If the critical reaction to Bachelet’s visit reflected establishment resentment as a breach in the geopolitical wall of hostility that had been mobilized to justify coercive diplomacy directed at China. In contrast, Biden’s visit to the Middle East dramatized the extent to which human rights are buried far underground when perceived to clash with strategic interests being pursued in foreign policy as abetted by the domestic incentives to treat the most flagrant violators of human rights as if they are behaving as a model democracy. Of course, it is of relevance to note that overlooking Saudi Arabia’s dreadful record, which includes blood dripping from the hands of the de facto head of state, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salmon (MBS), did bring Biden and the normally compliant media visible discomfort and some steps back from fist bump amicability in Saudi Arabia. Biden made clear that only national security interests prevented him from fulfilling his 2020 campaign pledge to treat Saudi Arabia as a ‘pariah’ state, he continued to believe that it was when it came to human rights and even more pointedly he rejected MBS’s insistence that he had nothing to do with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi back in 2018. Awkwardly, Biden made himself vulnerable to MBS’s clever taunt—you seem to care much more about Jamal Khashoggi than Shireen Abu Akleh. Rather than implicate Israel, the U.S. investigation of the murder of its own citizen, seems prepared to share the grief of Akleh’s surviving family instead of seeking accountability of the sort that might protect journalists covering dangerous hotspots in the future.

When it came to Israel, not only were human rights issues off the table, but Israel was praised extravagantly and unreservedly as an ally with shared values. Biden even declared himself to be a non-Jewish Zionist as if disregarding the plight of the Palestinians was not enough of a demonstration of continued partisanship. Pro-Palestinians had anticipated this one-sidedness, [See statement of the Global Network on the Question of Palestine, “Biden’s Upcoming Visit to the Middle East: A Recipe for Violence not Peace, July 12, 2022] and its pointed failure to take account of such developments as the condemnation of the most internationally respected human rights NGOs in Israel and Occupied Palestine being branded as ‘terrorist’ organizations by the Israeli Secretary of Defense and currently aspiring prime minister, Benny Gantz. Even nine of the most important EU members (including France, Germany, Spain, and Italy) issued a joint statement on July 12th repudiating this cynical branding by the Israeli government evidently designed to inhibit international funding and the domestic viability of these key civil society actors. In the same spirit, although much more serious from a human rights perspective, Biden and Western media kept completely silent about the glaring reality of Israel apartheid despite the strong mainstream human rights NGOs in the West and even in Israel concluding that Israel was guilty of committing the continuing international crime of apartheid.[See 2001 reports of B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International, as well as 2017 UN report of the Economic and Social Council of West Asia).   Unlike the visit to Riyadh if Biden had raised these concerns even politely if would have undoubtedly produced a negative reaction among Jewish lobbying groups in the U.S., with repercussions for fundraising and the 2022 and 2024 elections. Despite Biden groveling at the feet of Yair Lapid, the Israeli caretaker prime minister, Trump remains the American leader of choice for the majority of Israelis as he doesn’t bother to pretend that he favors Palestinian statehood in a meaningful form, while Biden is content to retain membership in the liberal Zionist camp.

The visit to Israel ended with the so-called Joint U.S.-Israel Jerusalem Declaration end signed by the two leaders on July 14, 2022. The opening sentences of the Declaration set the tone, which unlike the effort in Saudi Arabia, is affirmed as something of an almost religious connection, far exceeding the normal language of alliance diplomacy or common national policy agendas. The words used are worth noticing, and especially as implicitly vindicating the marginalization of the Palestinian quest for justice:

“The United States and Israel reaffirm the unbreakable bonds between our two countries and the enduring commitment of the United States to Israel’s security. Our countries further reaffirm that the strategic U.S.-Israel partnership is based on a bedrock of shared values, shared interests, and true friendship. Furthermore, the United States and Israel affirm that among the values the countries share is an unwavering commitment to democracy, the rule of law, and the calling of “Tikkun Olam,” repairing the world.”

The Declaration went on to attack the UN and even the ICC as giving way to anti-Semitism, all because it was a venue for well-evidenced criticisms of Israel’s state practices and policies. It even agreed to join forces in opposing the BDS Campaign and indeed any effort regarded as delegitimizing Israel as a state. There were, as well, imprudently phrased commitments in the Declaration including with reference to Iran, the language of which is provocative:

“The United States stresses that integral to this pledge is the commitment never to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, and that it is prepared to use all elements of its national power to ensure that outcome. The United States further affirms the commitment to work together with other partners to confront Iran’s aggression and destabilizing activities, whether advanced directly or through proxies and terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.”

Of course, among the revealing and dangerous silences associated with the Biden visit was the failure to mention Israel’s arsenal of nuclear weaponry and resulting strategic hegemony throughout the region. From any kind of detached perspective dedicated to peace and stability a nuclear-free zone for the Middle East would be the optimal way to promote American true interests in the region, including energy production increases. When in history has a dominant state twisted its own policies in response to pressures from a small state that it heavily subsidizes, including with weapons, with the announced goal of ensuring its regional military superiority?

To end on a constructive note, the White House might entrust future international political travel plans to American Express rather than the State Department. It’s time to shed Blinken’s blinkered ‘rule-governed’ geopolitical fairy tale if we want to understand how the world works.

Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University, Chair of Global law, Queen Mary University London, and Research Associate, Orfalea Center of Global Studies, UCSB.