SOME MIGHT dispute whether America remains the “indispensable nation”, a phrase deployed in 1998 by Madeleine Albright, then the country’s secretary of state. But it is certainly still the nation that cannot be ignored, the one that, in a sense, sets the political weather globally. So when it goes through a trauma as it has since the killing by the police of George Floyd, the impact is felt worldwide. Mr Floyd’s death has provoked popular protests in dozens of countries; it has also been an opportunity for gloating from the governments of America’s foes and rivals, and has been an embarrassment for its friends and allies.
This past weekend saw hundreds of protests not just in America, but around the world. On Saturday in Parliament Square in London, the largest of many demonstrations in Britain, tens of thousands of people braved chilly squalls and the risk of covid-19, which had led government ministers to call for protests to be shunned. They shouted Mr Floyd’s name, chanted “Black Lives Matter” and, every now and then, dropped to one knee with one clenched fist raised skyward. The crowd, overwhelmingly young and racially mixed, mostly wore masks but paid no attention to social-distancing constraints. Many regarded the danger posed by the virus as proof of their commitment to the anti-racist cause. Their parents or grandparents might have been hurt or arrested in the battle outside the American embassy that followed a protest against the Vietnam war in March 1968. But they too, in their own eyes at least, were putting themselves on the line.
They were protesting against not just violence by the American police, or President Donald Trump’s handling of the unrest, but against racism at home. Many placards listed names of black victims of police violence in Britain, such as Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old whose shooting by the police in London in 2011 sparked widespread rioting. They also recalled the victims of other crimes whose perpetrators had not been brought to justice, such as Belly Mujinga, a railway worker who died of covid-19, allegedly after being spat at by a carrier of the virus.
In other countries, too, George Floyd’s murder has resurrected old worries about the justice system’s treatment of ethnic minorities. In France, for example, protesters remembered Adama Traoré, a young Frenchman of Malian descent who died in police custody in 2016. And Brazil on Sunday saw nationwide marches against President Jair Bolsonaro and police violence against black people, including the accidental killing of a 14-year-old in Rio de Janeiro on May 18th.
Elsewhere representatives of entire communities have drawn parallels between their plight and that of African-Americans. Palestinians saw echoes of George Floyd’s fate in the shooting by police in Jerusalem on May 30th of Iyad Halak, a 32-year-old with severe autism, who was apparently mistaken for somebody else. In Australia, Aboriginal activists pointed out that more than 400 indigenous people have died in police custody since 1991, when a commission of inquiry, held to investigate the problem, made hundreds of recommendations to promote reconciliation between Aboriginal and other Australians. The “Black Lives Matter” slogan has been adopted in Indonesia by indigenous people in the provinces of Papua and West Papua. Darker-skinned than many Indonesians, many Papuans complain of widespread discrimination, and hanker after independence.
That no country is entirely free of racism and discrimination may have restrained some politicians from commenting on America’s problems. Its strongest critics, however, showed no such reticence. After all, American leaders rarely pull their punches.
China in particular relished accusing America of hypocrisy. The timing was poignant. On May 28th China’s parliament rubber-stamped a proposal to impose a security law on Hong Kong that America insisted robbed the territory of the autonomy it was promised. June 4th marked the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre in 1989. Mike Pompeo, America’s secretary of state, undeterred by the irony that America now appeared far more likely than China to deploy armoured vehicles against peaceful protesters in its national capital, observed the date by meeting veterans of China’s democracy movement. Hu Xijin, editor of Global Times, a tub-thumping party-controlled tabloid, clearly enjoyed drawing attention to these coincidences. On Twitter, he called on Mr Pompeo to “stand with the angry people of Minneapolis, just like you did with people of Hong Kong”.
Iran’s leaders have been milking America’s predicament for all it is worth. “A cop kneeling on a black man’s neck and letting him choke to death…is the nature of the American government. They have done the same to such countries as Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria,” said Ayatollah Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader, in a televised speech. Authoritarian leaders elsewhere—in Russia and Turkey, for example—have similarly jumped to criticise America, and, by implication, try to vindicate their own repression. Even North Korea, by many assessments the world’s most thuggish and despotic regime, tried to seize the moral high ground. “Demonstrators enraged by the extreme racists throng even to the White House. This is the reality in the US today,” claimed a spokesman quoted in the ruling-party newspaper, Rodong Sinmun.
America’s friends and allies, by contrast, have found themselves in a tight spot. Few want to antagonise America, or Mr Trump. So many have sought refuge in keeping their mouths shut. Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, for example, has been uncharacteristically taciturn on the issue. And Justin Trudeau, his Canadian counterpart, responded to a question about Mr Trump’s handling of recent events with more than 20 seconds of eloquent silence, before beginning his answer: “We all watch in horror and consternation what’s going on in the United States…”, before turning to racism and inequality in Canada.
On the other hand, the pressure from the streets means that Western leaders cannot ignore racism either in America or at home. A young generation for whom this has become, along with climate change and sexual inequality, one of the big political issues will force an examination of many national blindspots. In the British port city of Bristol, for example, protesters toppled a statue of Edward Colston, a 17th-century slave-trader, and heaved it into a canal. And in the Netherlands, the prime minister, Mark Rutte, said he had changed his mind about his previous defence of the “Zwarte Piet” tradition cherished by many Dutch people: when Santa Claus visits the country each December, he is accompanied by “black Petes”, helpers played by children or adults dressed up in blackface, big red lips and curly wigs.
The pandemic has marked a pause in the wave of unco-ordinated but simultaneous protest movements that crossed much of the world last year. They seem to be resuming, starting in America. Its position as the sole superpower may be under threat. But its political agonies still sway opinion around the world.■