Trump and Xi Are Bending the Moral Arc of History Toward Barbarism

Two peas in a pod. Photo: Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images

The United States has perpetrated no small number of crimes against humanity in the name of defending human rights. Over the course of the Vietnam War, our nation dropped more bombs on Southeast Asia than all sides let loose in World War II, and doused more than 3,000 of the region’s villages with one of the deadliest substances known to humankind. Those 7.6 million tons of ordnance — and 13 million gallons of Agent Orange — recognized no distinction between civilian and soldier. Our war planners didn’t either. When Henry Kissinger ordered “a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia” in 1970, his instructions were simple: “Anything that flies or anything that moves.

But Kissinger never championed war crimes in public. And the presidents he served under never failed to explain that America was only killing hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese civilians in order to save them from a communist regime that had no respect for their inalienable rights.

Subsequent “leaders of the free world” shared this commitment to (at least) feigning respect for liberal democracy, and international law. Ronald Reagan armed Latin American death squads in the name of spreading freedom abroad, not creating jobs at home. And George W. Bush framed his illegal invasion of Iraq as an attempt to export American liberty, not expropriate Iraqi oil.

All of which is to say: Donald Trump is not an unusual president because he routinely violates international law, but because he does so without shame or subterfuge. In the severity of their immediate consequences, Trump’s atrocities don’t hold a candle to his Republican predecessor’s. (Pardoning war criminals is bad; orchestrating the mass comission of war crimes through a global torture program is worse.) Plenty of past presidents have done more to betray our nation’s putative values. But only Trump has enthusiastically disavowed those values.

As a candidate, Trump called on the U.S. military to target the wives and children of ISIS militants for extermination, and argued that mass-murdering Muslim prisoners of war (with bullets dipped in pig’s blood) was a uniquely effective counterterrorism technique. As president, he has repeatedly vowed to expropriate the natural resources of Middle Eastern countries occupied by U.S. troops, defended U.S. support for Saudi war crimes in Yemen on the grounds that “they are spending $110 billion on military equipment and on things that create jobs for this country,” and justified his pardons of U.S. war criminals by suggesting our troops have the right to kill foreigners indiscriminately. (“We train our boys to be killing machines, then prosecute them when they kill!”)

Criticism of Trump’s abnormally barbarous rhetoric can sometimes obscure the barbarous normality of much of his agenda. Many of the most horrifying aspects of Trump-era misrule are mere escalations of longstanding U.S. policy. And yet, there is something to be said for hypocrisy. The only thing worse than a global hegemon that fails to live up to its liberal ideals may be one that stays true to its illiberal ones. And, at the moment, the world’s two great powers — Donald Trump’s U.S. and Xi Jinping’s China — both seem to fit the latter description.

While the Trump administration has been venerating U.S. war criminals, and formally condoning settler colonialism in the West Bank, China has been imprisoning hundreds of thousands of its Uighur residents for the crimes of practicing their religion and/or identifying with their ethnic group. Over the weekend, the world gained new insights into the largest mass internment of a minority group since World War II. In highly classified documents leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, Chinese officials provide subordinates with detailed instructions for managing the Uighur reeducation camps, including “how to prevent escapes, how to maintain total secrecy about the camps’ existence, methods of forced indoctrination, how to control disease outbreaks, and when to let detainees see relatives or even use the toilet.” The documents further confirm reports that China has constructed a vast system of forced-labor camps for Uighurs who complete reeducation. “All students who have completed initial training will be sent to vocational skills improvement class for intensive skills training for a school term of 3 to 6 months,” the manual obtained by the ICIJ reads.

Such documents are harrowing in their malevolent banality, but they corroborate more than they reveal. The basic facts of the world-historic crime unfolding in Xinjiang have been readily visible for more than a year now. And the global community has made the conscious choice not to see it. A decade ago, Turkish president Recep Erdogan decried China’s treatement of the Uighurs as “simply put, genocide.” At the United Nations in September, Turkey’s Islamist leader decried the plight of Muslims the world over — but never mentioned the ones rotting in Chinese prisons for the crime of discouraging their coworkers from watching pornography. Erdogan’s dereliction on that front was typical. Leaders of Muslim-majority countries with strong economic ties to China have almost all prioritized domestic prosperity over international solidarity. And the West has revealed similar priorities. Trump administration officials have condemned Xi Jinping’s assault on religious liberty in harsh terms. But the White House has nevertheless declined to make amelioration of the Uighurs’ plight a priority in trade negotiations, let alone the basis for formal sanctions.

In sum, China’s combination of economic might and unabashed authoritarianism is exposing the emptiness of the global community’s paeans to human rights — just as the president of the United States has ceased to so much as mouth them. There is some reason to worry that these developments are fostering a new ethos of impunity, and thus, abetting an upsurge in illiberalism the world over. The World Justice Project found in 2018 that “fundamental human rights” had diminished in nearly two-thirds of the 113 countries that participated in its annual survey. Meanwhile, according to International Rescue Committee president David Miliband, the past decade has seen “a six-fold increase in annual civilian battle deaths … a doubling in the number of aid workers killed each year, a 150 percent increase in the number of landmine-related casualties, and a significant rise in the cases of ‘ethnic cleansing.’” This ostensible decline in global adherence to international laws of war and human rights would be ominous in any context. At a time when the ranks of the stateless are large and poised to grow larger, it is especially alarming. International norms against genocide and ethnic cleansing are weak and faulty tools. But they are often the only ones that displaced people have at their disposal.

The 20th century’s Pax Americana never lived up to its putative values, and sometimes deployed them as camouflage for nigh-genocidal crimes. And yet, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights also offered a shared moral framework through which the world’s oppressed could articulate their demands for justice, and condemn the First World’s abuses. It remains quite possible that the multipolar world currently in the making will prove more conducive to peace than the one America has lorded over since 1945. But as the U.S. president celebrates our nation’s most merciless “killing machines,” China commits genocide in broad daylight, and the rest of the world averts its eyes, it’s hard not to fear the opposite may prove true (if only because this world is growing less hospitable every day).

The liberal world order never really existed. But we may miss it when it’s gone.

Trump and Xi Are Bending the Arc of History Toward Atrocity