Do Americans really believe in human rights?

A RECENT article in The New Yorker on Mr Xi Jinping includes an account of a discussion he had a few years ago with his then US counterpart, Vice-President Joe Biden. One of the questions Mr Xi asked, according to Mr Biden, was why America put "so much emphasis on human rights", to which Mr Biden replied: "No president of the United States could represent the US were he not committed to human rights."

He went on to advise Mr Xi: "If you don't understand this, you can't deal with us. President Barack Obama would not be able to stay in power if he did not speak of it. So look at it as a political imperative. It doesn't make us better or worse. It's who we are. You make your decisions. We'll make ours."

This brief interchange is very revealing about some major impediments to mutual understanding between China and the US. For starters, the very fact that Mr Xi posed this question is instructive. He undoubtedly had received an earful about human rights from Americans but like many other sophisticated observers of America in Beijing, he had a hard time believing it.

Doubts such as his are often coupled with the assumption that human rights claims are not a matter of deep belief, but a ruse masking America's quest for domination. After all, how else could Americans talk about rights while living with continued racism at home and the torture of prisoners in Iraq?

When confronted with such contradictions, most Americans acknowledge we are far from perfect in living up to our aspirations, but we do have an abiding commitment to human rights. Mr Biden translated this into the bottom line that no US president could stay in power without a commitment to human rights.

His assessment reflects a tried and true way to mobilise public sentiment in the US. It is rooted in a deep-seated national narrative about freedom and democracy that has been a core element of American culture since the Puritan call to build a "city upon a hill" some four centuries ago, and it has been used by leaders of all ideological stripes.

In his first inaugural address, George Washington spoke of how the American people were entrusted with "the sacred fire of liberty". Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves with his Emancipation Proclamation. Mr Jimmy Carter banned US participation in the Moscow Olympics over human rights abuses. In his farewell address, Mr Ronald Reagan spoke of how he had always believed in the "shining city upon a hill".

Mr George W. Bush had his "freedom agenda". And in his Independence Day speech of 2013, Mr Obama spoke of America as "a global defender of peace and freedom; a beacon of hope for people everywhere who cherish those ideals".

All this suggests that Mr Biden was right in saying that a commitment to human rights is a political imperative in America. But he was a bit disingenuous when he went on to say: "You make your decisions. We'll make ours."

This is because the US views its commitment to human rights as something that applies not only to itself, but also to everyone else. The call for human rights trumpeted by Americans is about universal human rights. Franklin Roosevelt emphasised in his 1941 "Four Freedoms" speech that freedom of speech and other rights should be shared by people "everywhere in the world".

This suggests that it is a mistake for China to view US statements about human rights as no more than a cynical attempt to veil a hegemonic agenda.

At the same time, for the US to say this commitment is "who we are", and leave it at that, is too high-handed. Americans tend to see the attempts by another government to restrict rights as cynical efforts by incumbent rulers to maintain political power - and feel a moral obligation to point this out.

But this is precisely what brings on accusations that the US is meddling in another sovereign country's internal affairs and that US calls for human rights are nothing but a cynical ploy to mask its hegemonic agenda. To be sure, there are instances where crude self-interest may indeed be the animating force behind one side or the other, but to ignore the cultural complexity informing each view would be to wilfully stunt the possibilities for understanding.

In the context of US-China relations today, this is much more than just a matter of frustration. It has given rise to what two leading analysts call "strategic distrust". Dr Wang Jisi of Peking University and Dr Kenneth Lieberthal of the Brookings Institution, in a 2011 report, drew some sobering conclusions about such distrust and how its basis in "deep culture" makes it difficult to transform. And in a recent follow-up conversation Dr Lieberthal opined that the situation has only worsened in the years since.

Surely the time has come for both Americans and Chinese to revisit the unconscious assumptions built into our national narratives. Reflexive dismissal of the other's perspective risks turning a blind eye to diplomatic possibilities, and heightens tensions.

The point of revisiting such issues is not to pursue the naive hope that we can achieve perfect harmony by removing points of misunderstanding. Genuine differences will remain. What's critically important is to recognise how easily we follow the grooves of deep culture in ways that can be unintentionally dangerous. The world's two superpowers deserve to be understood and respected in all their complexity.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is the Marshall S. Snow Professor of Arts and Sciences and Vice-Chancellor for International Affairs at Washington University in St Louis. He is also a Guest Professor at Fudan University in Shanghai and Tsinghua University in Beijing.