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Less ethical US foreign policy requires new logic

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, shakes hand with U.S. President Joe Biden upon his arrival at Bharat Mandapam convention center for the G20 Summit, in New Delhi, India, Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023. Evan Vucci/Pool via REUTERS Acquire Licensing Rights
LONDON, Sept 18 (Reuters Breakingviews) – When Joe Biden took office he promised to put human rights at the “centre” of American foreign policy. But the U.S. president is now cosying up to countries such as Vietnam, Saudi Arabia and India which have, to a varying extent, chequered records when it comes to respecting the rights of their citizens. The change in policy requires a better explanation.
The main reason for the shift is clear. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and rising tensions with China are now driving U.S. foreign policy, and ethical considerations have taken a back seat.
On a trip to Asia this month, Biden denied that he had sacrificed humane matters for strategic issues, saying he had raised questions about human rights with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Vietnamese leaders. Even so, groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are concerned.
Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week that “Beijing and Moscow are working together to make the world safe for autocracy”. Though he didn’t say the U.S. was sidelining human rights concerns, he added: “If we go it alone, or only with our democratic friends, we will come up short.”
This shift in emphasis was on display when Biden went to New Delhi earlier this month for the summit of the Group of 20 leading economies, where he lavished praise on Modi and shook hands with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The president then headed for Hanoi where Vietnam agreed to upgrade its relations with the U.S. to its highest level.
India is a democracy while Saudi Arabia and Vietnam are not. But the United States considers all to have poor records when judged against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Biden’s approach marks a contrast with his previous declaration that the key contest of the 21st century would be between democracies and autocracies. Before he was elected, he even promised to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah”. The U.S. president now seems to accept that autocrats come in two varieties: those who are a threat to the United States and its allies; and those who are not.
While it may make sense for the United States to choose the lesser evil, it is now unclear what role human rights play in American foreign policy. Biden would be wise to spell it out.
The geopolitical logic for cosying up to Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and India is clear. Biden shifted his position with Riyadh when he visited last year in a failed attempt to get the kingdom to pump more oil to compensate for Western countries’ reduced consumption of Russian crude after the invasion of Ukraine. The United States also seems worried that Saudi Arabia has been getting closer to Beijing.
Meanwhile, Vietnam and India are both scared of China, with which they share long borders and have territorial disputes. The United States wants to draw them closer. It is prepared to sell them arms, reducing their dependence on Russia which up to now has been their top weapons supplier.
These relationships have a strong geoeconomic aspect too. Vietnam and India are already the United States’ seventh- and ninth-largest trading partners, respectively, each handling about $120 billion in bilateral imports and exports in 2021. The Biden administration wants to build up both countries as suppliers as part of its “friendshoring” initiative, which aims to make the U.S. and its allies less reliant on Chinese-made goods. So it is working with New Delhi and Hanoi on semiconductors and other key technologies.
Reuters Graphics
Biden’s most eye-catching announcement at the G20 was the creation of an economic corridor linking India, the Middle East and Europe. This project, which envisages a railway across the Arabian peninsula buttressed with a pipeline for green hydrogen and cables for green electricity and fibre optics, is partly driven by the need for better connections between India and U.S. allies in Europe.
Climate change also figures in the White House’s thinking. The new supply chains it is building are heavily focused on components for green products such as critical minerals and solar panels. The U.S.-led Group of Seven advanced democracies is also aiding Vietnam with its energy transition, while Washington has agreed to help New Delhi lower the cost of capital for green investment.
Blinken spoke last week about how the United States needed to pursue its foreign policy with “humility” because the “old order” had failed to deliver many of its promises. Although he didn’t connect this idea to human rights, that seems to be part of the thinking.
After all, the United States caused massive damage when it tried to impose democracy and human rights with the barrel of a gun in Afghanistan and Iraq. Meanwhile, economic sanctions can backfire by harming ordinary people without removing oppressive regimes.
Even lecturing foreign nations about their bad behaviour is problematic. It can open the U.S. to the charge of hypocrisy given its own imperfect human rights record.
There may be extreme cases, such as genocide, when the United States should intervene to defend human rights. But in other situations it may be better off using carrots. For example, it could link the promise of weapons, investment, trade and help with the green transition to a country’s progress on human rights.
A nuanced approach would be to explain to other governments that the U.S. will be able to offer more carrots if they show greater respect for human rights. This is partly because many Americans want their country to be a good global citizen. It’s also because history shows that partnerships with countries that share U.S. values are more likely to last.
Follow @Hugodixon on X
Editing by Peter Thal Larsen and Thomas Shum
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.
Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias.



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