The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the Eric Garner and Ferguson protests have ‘struck a blow to America’s image’

James Cartmill holds an American flag while protesting in Oakland, Calif., on Monday, Nov. 24, 2014, after the announcement that a grand jury decided not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old. Several thousand protesters marched through Oakland with some shutting down freeways, looting, burning garbage and smashing windows. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
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Inhabitants of the United States are notoriously inward-looking. It’s football, not futbol. It’s Fahrenheit, not Celsius. It’s imperial measurement, not metric. So when the events of Ferguson, Mo., erupted this summer and continued into unrest over Eric Garner killing, much analysis has focused on what this rupture in the social compact meant domestically.

But it has international ramifications as well. Americans weren’t the only one watching. So were the Chinese. So were the Russians, the Iranians, the Egyptians – even the North Koreans. And some analysts now fear the ongoing unrest weakens the United States’ moral authority when it castigates other nations on human rights abuses and opens the United States up to broad criticism – which it has gotten plenty of.

“Ferguson also struck a blow to America’s image as the global standard-bearer for equality, human rights, and opportunity,” wrote Stephen M. Walt, a Harvard professor of international affairs. “The treatment of black Americans has long tarnished our national mythology of the ‘melting pot,’ and with it the smug belief that American is the ideal model for the rest of the world,” he wrote in Foreign Policy. “This latest episode reminds us that the country still does not live up to the ideals that it likes to preach to others.”

This is a point that has not gone unnoticed among many countries who appear to be experiencing more than a little schadenfreude at America’s comeuppance. Take, for instance, the Chinese. It dispatched numerous reporters to Ferguson, some of whom were reportedly robbed at gunpoint late last month. At one point in its months-long coverage of the protests, state-run Xinhua published a searing analysis of the drama, highlighting what it described as American hypocrisy.

“The Ferguson incident once again demonstrates that even in a country that has for years tried to lay the role of an international human rights judge and defender, there is still much room for improvement at home,” Xinhua writer Li Li concluded. “In its annual human rights report issued in February, the United States assaulted almost 200 countries across the world for their so-called poor human rights record. … Each country has its own national conditions that lead to different social problems. Obviously, what the United States needs to do is concentrate on solving its own problems rather than always point fingers at others.”

The Russian media, likewise, has been relentless in its excoriation of the United States. Its media normally home in on Vladimir Putin. But since August, reported Buzzfeed’s Max Seddon, it has been all Ferguson, all the time. Russia Today was at the fracas last week, broadcasting live back into Russian homes. “The conflict in Ferguson isn’t a one-time event, but something profound,” the Russian state television anchor with Rossiya said. “Race relations, social inequality, a black ghetto – the fragile world that hardly held itself together through a belief in just a little bit of fairness, it seems, has finally collapsed.”

Russian talking heads urged support for African Americans. “Russia must support the protests of progressive African-Americans who are speaking out against the totalitarian regime in the U.S.,” Seddon quoted defense analyst Igor Korotchenko as saying.

Ferguson also provided the Egyptians a chance to pull a role reversal on the United States, mimicking the language the Obama administration used when protests erupted in Tahrir Square. Calling for local police to exercise restraint over the unrest, Reuters reported the Egyptian Foreign Ministry added it was “closely following the escalation of protests” in Ferguson.

To Harvard’s Stephen Walt, the eruption of protest signals more than granting  foreign powers an opportunity to give it back to the United States. It also demonstrates American hubris, highlighting the difficulty in “nation-building” elsewhere when things sometimes don’t work all that well here.

“Yet a little more than 10 years ago, U.S. foreign-policy elites from both political parties blithely assumed that the United States could topple governments in Iraq and Afghanistan and then quickly set up new institutions that would handle deep ethnic, sectarian, or tribal divisions in a just, equitable, and effective manner,” Walt wrote. “…What could they have been thinking?”