Thursday 18, August 2022

Shared values and fist bump geopolitics

News Desk: THE US government at the highest level criticised Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, when 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 United Nations staff that had visited China and negotiated the itinerary of the visit, which 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.’

Critics even observed that such a visit so effectively whitewashed China’s wrongdoing that rather than improve its compliance with human rights the visit 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 the 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 US president Joe Biden mid-July visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia. The critical reaction to Bachelet’s visit reflected establishment resentment as a breach in the geopolitical wall of hostility that had been mobilised to justify coercive diplomacy directed at China. In contrast, Biden’s visit to the Middle East dramatised 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, the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, 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 when it came to human rights and even more pointedly he rejected Mohammed bin Salman’s insistence that he had nothing to do with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi back in 2018.

Awkwardly, Biden made himself vulnerable to Mohammed bin Salman’s clever taunt you seem to care much more about Jamal Khashoggi than Shireen Abu Akleh. Rather than implicate Israel, the US 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 and its pointed failure to take account of such developments as the condemnation of the most internationally respected human rights non-governmental organisations in Israel and occupied Palestine being branded as ‘terrorist’ organisations by the Israeli secretary of defence and the currently aspiring prime minister, Benny Gantz. Even nine of the most important members of the European Union, including France, Germany, Spain, and Italy, issued a joint statement on July 12 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 Israeli apartheid despite the strong mainstream human rights non-governmental organisations in the west and even in Israel concluding that Israel was guilty of committing the continuing international crime of apartheid. One only needs to look at reports of B’Tselem, the Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International, as well as the 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 it would have undoubtedly produced a negative reaction among Jewish lobbying groups in the United States, with repercussions for fundraising for the 2024 elections. Despite Biden grovelling at the feet of Yair Lapid, the Israeli caretaker prime minister, Donald Trump remains the American leader of choice for the majority of Israelis as he doesn’t bother to pretend that he favours 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 US-Israel Jerusalem Declaration’ 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 marginalisation 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 US-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 United Nations and even the International Criminal Court 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 ‘Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions’ campaign and indeed any effort regarded as delegitimising 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 destabilising activities, whether advanced directly or through proxies and terrorist organisations 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 true American 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 subsidises, 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 the American Express rather than the state department. It is time to shed US secretary of state Antony Blinken’s blinkered ‘rule-governed’ geopolitical fairy tale if we want to understand how the world works.

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