This year was not one of optimism for those of us who believe American hegemony is a force for good in the world. Alarming stories on China’s economic and military strength, blatant aggression, and hunger for Taiwan littered the news. But China’s rise is not just about power politics. It is even worse. China’s rise is about rejection of the post-World War II consensus on human rights. It is about redefining human rights in collective terms and undermining America’s moral authority.
But here is the bad news for Beijing, and the good news for the West. Despite genuine concerns over how an increasingly multipolar world will erode the human rights consensus, the agenda still remains a major obstacle to ideological competitors—both at home and abroad.
Most of the frightening media coverage on China this year overlooked a critical component of American power—our moral authority. Central to this moral authority is the post-WWII human rights consensus, or “regime.” Protestants, Catholics, and humanists alike vie for credit for the human rights principles, norms, and rules that underlie this regime and are embodied in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Though its foundations are hotly debated, there is no denying that American leadership paved the way for the Declaration’s adoption and has enforced its doctrine ever since.
The human rights regime causes problems for authoritarian states. Consider, for example, the great lengths Beijing takes (such as its 2017 Foreign NGO Law) to circumvent human rights scrutiny and dialogue—scrutiny that can cost it big bucks with civil-minded foreign investors. But Beijing is no longer simply interested in minimizing criticism. It is now taking aim at the heart of human rights institutions with the intent of rewriting the rules and neutralizing the Western consensus altogether.
China’s need to rewrite the rules reminds Americans and Christians of their reason for hope. The modern consensus on human dignity imparts to the United States and her like-minded allies an unrivaled allure, one that challengers have to compensate for through indoctrination, manipulation, brutality, and oppression. The US is attractive to outsiders, considerably more so than her adversaries. America’s human rights agenda has given her international affairs unique legitimacy over the past seven decades, softening the blow of some obvious blunders.
What gives the post-WWII human rights consensus such allure? It is difficult to convincingly argue that America’s notions of human dignity are anything but divinely inspired. China’s barbaric rejection of any coherent philosophy of human dignity explains its lack of moral appeal. From Uighur detention camps to their dubious handling of tennis star Peng Shuai’s sexual assault accusations against a former Communist Party leader, China’s egregious record of human rights violations is not lost on international audiences. As they say, in politics if you’re explaining, you’re losing. China has a lot of explaining to do.
Yet just because the human rights consensus is intact does not mean it is indestructible. Cracks are showing. America’s domestic and international politics now embody severe misinterpretations over what should and should not be categorized as a human right. But even the most contentious of these squabbles, or the related quarrels on whether or not the human rights project stunts the capacity to identify the common good, distract the US from cherishing the obvious. Noisy debates over human rights take place on “our” (Christianity’s) territory. Progressives seeking to co-opt human rights language must ultimately, if albeit unknowingly, ascribe to biblical principles to ground their agenda.
Even as debates over the definition of a “human right” kindle social upheaval and threaten to devour America from the inside out, the human rights consensus has consolidated in other ways. Not long ago the modern human rights project was associated with imperialism. But now most reputable human rights scholarship quietly agrees that the imperialistic critique was misplaced. Far from perfect in implementation, modern human rights have proven valuable and good.
Meanwhile, evil tactics are backfiring on China, resulting in the unintended consequence of galvanizing Americans against it. Thanks to a shared agreement on the value of human life, Beijing is making it easy for the US to unify in opposition. China is reminding everyone what true imperialism looks like. With the US at the helm since the 1950s, the world has grown accustomed to benevolent leadership. Dark days are ahead if China continues to gain power. But as this darkness spreads, so do Americans’ capacities to recognize true evil—as opposed to a progressive, revisionist version of evil.
Still, a word of caution in order. Americans should not deceive themselves into thinking their ideological lure is a sufficient bulwark against foreign aggression. To effectively counter China, the United States must view China for what it is—a serious military threat. The human rights consensus does not mean that the US is free to walk away from her strategic objectives, commitments, and responsibilities. Quite the opposite. America’s moral authority should translate into both the impetus and the means to balance foreign threats.