Governments around the world are routinely antagonized by the United States for quashing dissent and democracy. This week they are reveling in the nationwide chaos and global demonstrations prompted by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. These include so-called “rogue regimes”—countries labeled an “axis of evil” by President George W. Bush. They also include nations about which the U.S. Department of State regularly expresses hand-wringing humanitarian concerns.
Unlike the State Department’s more or less strategic castigations (often followed by calls for economic sanctions or military build-ups), recent statements by Iran, China, North Korea, Russia, Venezuela, Cuba, and Turkey seem to have been made in the spirit of tongue-in-cheek reprisal—hitting back with public disparagement while the Great Democracy’s hypocrisies are on full display.
Just five days before Floyd was killed, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held a press conference during which he marked the two year anniversary of his campaign “to get Iran to behave like a normal nation.” As part of the celebrations, Pompeo announced sanctions against Iran’s interior minister for using lethal force on peaceful protesters. That same day, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said, “The Iranian regime violently suppresses dissent of the Iranian people, including peaceful protests, through physical and psychological abuse.” (Mnuchin’s department administers economic sanctions.)
Two weeks later, as police and protesters (not to mention journalists) violently clashed in dozens of American cities, Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei returned the finger-wagging during a televised address. In America, he said, “they kill people in an open crime, and they do not offer an apology while claiming [to support] human rights…This is nothing new.” In fact, “this is what Americans have been doing to the whole world.”
Iran’s foreign ministry mimicked the State Department’s tactic of criticizing the Iranian government while consoling Iran’s citizens: “To the American people,” the ministry spokesman said, “the world is standing with you. And to the American officials and police: Stop violence against your people and let them breathe.”
Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, performed this reversal literally, tweeting a critical press release by Pompeo in which every “Iran” was replaced (in red ink) by “the U.S.” or “America.”
Some don’t think #BlackLivesMatter.
To those of us who do: it is long overdue for the entire world to wage war against racism.
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) May 30, 2020
The yearlong protests in Hong Kong (among other disputes) have also made China a favorite target of the Trump administration. In an interview last month with Fox News host Maria Bartiromo, Pompeo delivered a political theory lesson about the Chinese Communist Party: “This is what authoritarian regimes do: They steal information, they deny freedom of expression, they oppress their peoples, and they present risk to people all across the world. Democracies behave completely differently.” He ended with a sprightly Orientalist overture: “The next century,” he said, must remain “a Western one, modeled on the freedoms that we have here in the United States.”
On May 30, the U.S. State Department spokeswoman tweeted: “Freedom loving people around the world must stand with the rule of law and hold to account the Chinese Communist party, which has flagrantly broken its promises to the people of Hong Kong.” China’s own foreign ministry spokeswoman was ready with a retort: “I can’t breathe.” Her quip went viral.
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s leader, accused the U.S. of “double standards,” and Zhao Lijian, another foreign ministry spokesperson, said that “racism against ethnic minorities in the U.S. is a chronic disease of American society,” seeming to deliberately employ the sort of language used by the State Department to call out China’s persecution of Muslim Uighurs.
Even North Korea couldn’t resist: One of Pyongyang’s state-run newspapers pointed to the “enraged” demonstrators outside the White House, noting, “This is the reality in the U.S. today. American liberalism and democracy put the cap of leftist on the demonstrators and threaten to unleash even dogs for suppression.”
Russia’s U.S. embassy issued a fuming statement after a Russian journalist was struck by several rubber bullets while covering the protests in Washington, D.C., despite repeatedly telling police she was a member of the press: “It is impermissible for law enforcement personnel to attack media employees…We remind the U.S. authorities of their international obligations to ensure the safety and unhindered activities of journalists.”
The verbal blowback came from the global south as well. Venezuela’s autocratic president, Nicolas Maduro, whom the Trump administration is trying to overthrow and arrest, seized on the tumult to turn the tables. In a nationally televised speech, Maduro reprimanded President Donald Trump for setting the military against his own people and proclaimed his solidarity with young and black Americans. He couldn’t resist tacking on a simile: “They want to suffocate us as they suffocated this young African American,” he said, pointing to his own neck. Cuba’s foreign minister said Floyd was “brutally assassinated.”
Some of these regimes’ remarks are run-of-the-mill opportunism or downright propaganda, as many news analysts have been happy to point out, and the State Department’s chastisements of other nations’ brutal policies are usually well-founded. No journalist in North Korea, China, or Iran could write this article and get away with it. But more interesting than these truths is the real-time, large-scale illumination of our own government’s hypocrisies when it comes to its misbehavior, shed by foreign nations, local journalists, and demonstrators worldwide.
Major newspapers and networks rarely compare State Department pronouncements against other countries to the U.S.’s own long history of foreign invasions, coups, regime changes, and campaigns of economic and military violence. The outrage over the death of George Floyd and the dysfunctional forms of domestic state violence it has revealed and provoked demands some reconsideration of U.S. behavior on the global stage, in addition to the American one.