Donald Trump, the man who ran for president on the premise that China is the our mortal enemy, has remained eerily silent on the Hong Kong protests and reports that Chinese authorities will soon crush the demonstrations. Why?
Trump is nothing if not consistent. He does not put human rights at the forefront of foreign policy. From his dealings with Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un to his close relationship with Mohammad Bin Salman, Trump has shunned decades worth of bipartisan thought that human rights has at least some role to play in U.S. foreign policy, the notable exception being Venezuela.
Sometimes this can be a good thing. The believers of the Wilsonian school of thought, Walter Russell Mead’s label for the moral do-gooders, have, particularly in the Middle East, bungled the country into one failed policy initiative after another, proving the law of unintended consequences is very real. A moralizing approach to the Middle East just further complicates an already complicated region. In this Trump was right not to throw the baby out with the bath water in the aftermath of Jamal Khashoggi, even if it was a cringe-worthy defense of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. MBS’ anti-Iran policy has led to the a detente between the Arab World and Israel, something that U.S. policymakers have been trying to do for decades and it has happened without the convention wisdom that required a final peace deal with the Palestinians.
It has also had its downsides, however. On Russia and North Korea, Trump’s belief that diplomacy works best through interpersonal relationships has at times been tremendously cringe-worthy and at others down right counterproductive. It is not good to the President saying he believes Putin over his own intelligence communities and to talk up Putin as if he is a swell guy. There’s a difference between diplomacy and just blowing smoke. Speaking of blowing smoke, Trump relationship with Kim is both bizarre and wrong on a political and moral level. Trump’s personal diplomacy with Kim has done nothing to curb North Korea’s nuclear weapons program or its missile testing, meanwhile Kim now gets called by his formal title and is talked up as if he is some great elder statesman who cares deeply for the North Korean people, which of course, he does not. What has the United States got out of all this? According to proponents of this strategy, such as it is, we are not fighting. In that case, it is nice to know the false “it’s either what I’m doing or war” dichotomy is not exclusive to Democrats.
Meanwhile, there is China. According to Trump, China is the biggest threat to the United States. There is an honest debate about whether China or Russia is, good people can disagree on that question, but in the long term, Trump is probably correct.
So, why won’t Trump speak out in support of the protesters in Hong Kong? Probably because, Trump is in the midst of trying to negotiate a better trade deal for the United States and because sticking his nose in China’s internal political situation will make that much more difficult if not impossible. Nobody likes outsiders coming in and telling them how to run their country, but the Chinese Communist Party takes it to another level. From Tibet to Taiwan, the CCP’s message is clear so countries not wanting to risk the economic damage that may come with irking Beijing mind their own business.
This should not deter Trump. For one he has shown that he does not really care what people think about him. He can now use this to his advantage and give rhetorical support to these people, if that upsets Beijing then so be it. What’s the worst thing they can do? Break off trade negotiations?
There is another potential concern that rings hallow. After failed democracy and human rights initiatives in the Middle East, more than a few people are concerned about supporting internal opposition movements, not because we do not like democracy or human rights, but because we do not know if these are actual small-d democrats or some opportunistic opposition group that could care less for Western standards of human rights. In Hong Kong, those concerns are not valid. Protesters have raised the old British colonial flag in the legislative building and sung the U.S. national anthem while waving American flags. They are trying to protect the “one country, two systems” principle negotiated between Britain and the United Kingdom that allowed for Hong Kong to be united with China.
If that is still too sentimental, here are two more considerations for those who want to play hardball with China, but do not like the touchy-feely side of U.S. foreign policy. Not that long ago, China doxxed a U.S. diplomat for allegedly conspiring with the protesters. Is that acceptable for an “America First” President? Furthermore, while Trump is right that China is a geopolitical threat to the United States, our allies, and therefore stability in the Indo-Pacific, a trade war is not the best way to deal with China.
If Trump really wants to get tough on China, the best way to do that would be to take any Chinese crackdown on the Hong Kong protesters and go through the diplomatic process of isolating China by turning it into a pariah state. Show the developing world, that this is what you get when you choose China over us. Tell the Europeans that if they are serious in their claim they favor a serious human rights, that they will support our efforts to isolate Beijing. Work with our Indo-Pacific allies, especially Taiwan, to strengthen their defenses.
The people who Mead described as Wilsonians have overplayed their hands over the past 15–20 years, but the fact that they exist has led to foreigners waving American and British colonial flags while protesting the fact they are in danger of losing their basic political freedoms. They deserve our support and the President should speak out.