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The West’s Moral Myopia – Donald Trump and the West’s Moral Myopia

The scenes from Washington as Trump supporters broke into the Capitol building in an attempt to prevent Joe Biden’s confirmation as US President, have rightly prompted shocked headlines throughout the west. By contrast the rounding up on the same day of over 50 pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong under China’s draconian national security law, has attracted less notice – while the Chinese government’s cynical tweet on its ‘eradicating extremism’ programme for Uighur women in Xinjiang, including sterilisation, has so far escaped any censure or even comment by Twitter, 20 hours after posting. Here, in a blog written before the Washington events, Charlie Laderman reflects on the moral myopia in the west that has allowed an obsession with Donald Trump to distract too many people from the threat posed by the world’s most autocratic rulers.

Over the past four years, Donald Trump has delighted in upending ethical norms and conventions in domestic and international life. For Trump, the ends always justify the means. As he told People magazine in 1981, ‘man is the most vicious of all animals.’ In the Trump worldview of interminable competition and struggle for power there is little place for moral considerations.

As president, Trump has offered copious examples of his amorality, with his call to the Georgia Secretary of State to ‘find’ votes the latest and perhaps most legally compromising. But his presidency has also revealed something profound and troubling about broader moral standards across the democratic world today.

In September, a 13-nation Pew public opinion poll of America’s principal, democratic allies revealed that more people had confidence in Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping than they did in Donald Trump. That America’s traditional allies place greater trust in a pair of authoritarian leaders, one who has recently poisoned his political opponent and the other who has incarcerated hundreds of thousands of their Muslim population in concentration camps, is deeply disconcerting to say the least. As President Trump’s former National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster responded when told about the poll: ‘I think it expresses a remarkable level of self-loathing and moral equivalency that is the bane of the West these days.’ As McMaster pointed out to the German newspaper Der Spiegel, ‘we all live in democratic countries,’ where our liberties are enshrined and protected, but ‘at the same time, we fail to recognize how much autocratic countries stifle human freedom.’

This welcome declaration on the difference between democracy and dictatorship should be heard and heeded around the world, not least by Twitter and its CEO Jack Dorsey. While the social media giant has been quick to label Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud with disclaimers, the organization left utterly baseless propaganda by Chinese officials about the US military’s responsibility for the origins of the coronavirus up on its site for two months. It’s hard to understand these double standards, not least as China’s highly illiberal government prevents Twitter from even operating in its territory.

Even worse has been Twitter’s refusal to remove tweets by the Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khameinei calling Israel a ‘deadly, cancerous growth’ and another committing Iran to support and assist anyone who ‘opposes and fights the Zionist regime.’ In a craven and mealy-mouthed appearance before the U.S. Senate Commerce committee, Dorsey said that these horrifying threats did not ‘violate our terms of service because we considered them “saber rattling” which is part of the speech of world leaders in concert with other countries.’

It is hard to know where to begin with someone so lacking in moral clarity that they think their platform is the appropriate place for brutal regimes to engage in murderous admonishments. Dorsey went on to say that ‘speech against our own people or a country’s own citizens we believe is different and can cause more immediate harm,’ seemingly oblivious to the ‘immediate harm’ that Iran’s leaders daily perpetrate on their own people.

Holding democratic politicians to moral standards is a worthy and important goal. But giving a free pass to the world’s worst and most despotic leaders is a betrayal of those standards. As Joe Biden sets about the task of delivering on his campaign promise to ‘restore the soul of America,’ the rest of the West needs to begin restoring its own sense of moral clarity.

Dr Charlie Laderman

Dr Charlie Laderman is Lecturer in International History at King’s College, London, having joined KCL from Peterhouse, Cambridge, where he was a Research Fellow. He has also been Harrington Faculty Fellow at the Clements Center for National Security, University of Texas, Austin.

He specialises in international relations and foreign policy, with a special interest in US foreign policy and grand strategy. His books include Sharing the Burden (New York, 2019) and co-authored with Brendan Simms, Donald Trump: The Making of a Worldview (London, 2017).

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