Criticism of Trump’s heavy-handed immigration policy was a central tenet of Joe Biden’s presidential campaign trail. In doing so, he tried to place himself in a position of moral superiority with the presumed intention of carrying that into his time in the Oval Office.
At first glance, Biden seems to have kept his position on the moral high ground.
The US recently took the decision to sanction Russian officials, including the head of the Federal Security Service, in response to the poisoning of the leader of the opposition, Alexei Navalny in August 2020.
The condemnation of the Kremlin’s involvement is particularly significant due to Navalny’s contentious reputation as a fierce critic of the dictatorial machinations of Putin. The Russian regime’s repression of Navalny’s freedom of speech and freedom of political expression provided an apt opportunity for Biden to champion liberal democracy.
As the first sanctions of his administration, it sends the message that anti-democratic actions such as these will not be countenanced by the great democratic powers and became an implicit affirmation of his belief in a global notion of fundamental human rights.
However, Biden is inconsistent with his views. His feeble response to China’s despicable actions against their Uighur population undermines his championing of human rights in the Navalny’s case.
Initial reports of the Uighur genocide in China arose earlier this year to the horror of the rest of the world. These were re-affirmed in a BBC article by James Lansdale, who made it clear that there was evidence of policy with the intent of the exterminating the Uighur minority in China.
With the echoes of the Holocaust still ringing in the ears of the learned, the stage was set for the leader of the free-world, the country nominally, and historically, as the bastion of liberty, to denounce the actions of Xi Jinping.
However, Biden has failed in this task. At a presidential town hall meeting on February 16th, he dismissed reports of China’s action as that which Westerners could not comprehend, and therefore comment on, due to the existence of different “cultural norms”.
Biden, in this defence of mass murder and sterilisation, has now decided that his belief that all people have human rights, is selective, depending on the political points he can score.
Indeed, the logic of Biden’s defence of China seems to trip over itself. In the meeting he sought to justify the erection of concentration camps as rooted in China’s different history. However, a brief look at Russia’s history can plausibly produce a similar justification of their actions against Alexei Nalvany. The actions which led to the US sanctions.
Astolphe de Custine wrote of Russia, during his travels there in 1839, that as a state and people, it was to be forever plagued by despotism. Based on the actions of the state and the reaction of their people, he concluded that Russia was ‘intoxicated’ with slavery. Maybe he had a point, even after pivotal regime changes, both throwing off the shackles a despotic regime, in 1917 and the 1990s, Russia has still ended up with a despot like Putin.
Applying this, why then did Biden not simply regard the actions against Nalvany as those of a state exercising their different cultural norms? In my opinion, this was down to the legacy of Trump.
During Trump’s tenure as President, the cozy relationship between him and Putin undeniably brought the executive into disrepute. Whilst no concrete evidence of collusion emerged, the shadow of suspicion stretched over Trump’s presidency, and its impact was still felt in the last election. A stain on a presidential legacy which all incumbents would wish to avoid.
In consideration of this, it seems to me that Biden does not truly care about protecting human rights, or even basing foreign policy on historical differences between states. This flip-flopping between idealism and historical relativism suggests that disassociating himself from Trump is his priority.
In a different sense, it does not matter what actions a state takes, provided it serves, or simply does not hinder, the actions of the US.
Personally I don’t believe that Biden has such motivations of foreign policy, or by a belief in human rights, or any such deep-rooted conviction. Rather, it suggests that the President that is simply another politician that bends to what he thinks will be most favourable to his poll ratings.
This is a frightening prospect with presupposes a dark time for the global human rights endeavour, and more importantly, the lives of the afflicted Uighur Minority.