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June 1, 2020, President Trump departs the White House to St. John's Church in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)
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US image takes a hit as world reacts to Floyd protests

By Laura Kelly, The Hill, 06/06/20

American diplomats are facing a tough challenge defending U.S. values as violent clashes between law enforcement officers and protesters dominate headlines around the world.

Meanwhile, President Trump’s calls to “dominate” the streets are being compared in the U.S. and in other countries to authoritarian leaders who look to treat civil discontent and unrest as acts of terrorism.

That has left diplomats charged with denouncing similar actions and statements by foreign governments in the uncomfortable position of now receiving that criticism in return.

“If you’re an American diplomat overseas, suddenly we look hypocritical,” said Nicholas Burns, former ambassador to Greece and NATO under the Clinton and Bush administrations.

“We’ve been saying to countries, ‘do the right thing, treat minority populations well, don’t use force against protesters, let people exercise their civil and constitutional rights in your societies.’ Now they’re coming to us and telling us to do that. How sad is that?”

The ongoing demonstrations against racial injustice and instances of police brutality in the U.S. are taking place in the wake of the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man killed after a white police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes. 

The largely peaceful protests have at times devolved into vandalism and looting, but images of law enforcement officers firing tear gas and flash grenades and using violent force to disperse peaceful protesters has prompted shock both at home and abroad.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has yet to address publicly the situation, which some former diplomats fear is compounding the problem.

Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun sent an internal email Monday night encouraging dialogue about racial issues and urging employees to complete unconscious bias training, according to ABC News.

But the lack of public statement in support of the right of protesters to exercise their freedom of speech is leading former State officials to say that the U.S. is missing an opportunity to explain the protests to the rest of the world.

Daniel Shapiro, former U.S. ambassador to Israel in the Obama administration, said the current moment reminds him of the challenges he faced talking about the inability of the U.S. to confront gun violence and the epidemic of school shootings.

“It really was — humiliating is an accurate phrase but doesn’t fully capture it. It’s more a feeling of shame, of our inability to address our own problems,” he said.

Shapiro noted that the protests actually showed instances of hope and inspiration, especially as young people join protests to decry racial injustice and police brutality. 

“Even in this story, the response of the people, and these incredible inspiring protests, led by young people who are articulating our best values, is actually a reason for hope and pride. So that’s part of the story too, it should always be told that way too,” he said.

The State Department did not return a request for comment by The Hill.

American adversaries have seized on charges of U.S. hypocrisy, with China, Russia, Iran and North Korea hammering the U.S. as a chaotic state violating the human rights it calls others to uphold around the world.

“This is the present reality of the crumbling U.S.,” North Korean state media said Wednesday.

China has used the protests in the U.S. to call out American officials who condemn Beijing for restricting freedoms in Hong Kong, worsening already strained tensions over the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying tweeted “I can’t breathe,” in reference to Floyd’s last words when responding to a tweet from State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus calling for protecting freedoms in Hong Kong from the Chinese Communist Party. 

“The [Chinese] media and the spokesperson seem to express sympathy to African Americans and denounce the police brutality — but it is not a new line,” said Ho-Fung Hung, professor in political economy at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

“It is just for propaganda value, definitely. Nobody believes that the Chinese government is genuinely sympathetic and concerned about human rights issues in the U.S.”

Meanwhile, Russian and Chinese officials and state-backed media have jumped on coverage of U.S. protests, focusing on the violent images of looting as well as on systemic racism and police brutality, according to an analysis by the Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD), a bipartisan, transatlantic initiative tracking Russian and Chinese  state-backed social media accounts.

Burns, who served as Under Secretary for Political Affairs during the Bush administration and is an unpaid foreign policy advisor for Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, said American diplomats need clear guidance from the top of the agency.

“I think this is a time when a leader of each of our cabinet agencies should be out speaking to their people, their men and women, saying ‘we believe people have a right to protest, it’s a cherished right, it’s freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, it’s right there in the constitution, it’s why we fought the revolution against the British,” he said.

“The diplomats need to hear this.”

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