Wanted: one leader of the free world. The United States need not apply.

Washington's international standing has been shattered. And its chief ideological opponents – Moscow and Beijing – are crowing with joy.

"How come US politicians called rioters in Hong Kong heroes, but when it's happening in America they're labelled thugs?" asks Beijing's Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian.

The US "simply cannot have any questions for others in the coming years," declares Moscow's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.

Police work to keep demonstrators back during a protest at the end of May in Washington DC. Photo / Getty Images
Police work to keep demonstrators back during a protest at the end of May in Washington DC. Photo / Getty Images

The unrest sweeping the US after the police killing of unarmed black man George Floyd was just the start. Attempts by President Trump to "dominate" protesters with military force is where international diplomatic eyes have fallen.

Now, international affairs analysts are wondering if the principles of democracy, equality under the law and human rights have suffered a mortal blow.

US diplomats are struggling. So are those of their allies.

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"America's friends are dismayed and, you know, shaken by this. They want to have faith in us," the Atlantic Council's Daniel Fried told NPR.

Instead, they and Washington's moral opponents see tear gas being fired on peaceful protesters.

They see army helicopters using counter-insurgency intimidation tactics, hovering directly above protesters heads.

They see media being assaulted by police.


What about freedom of assembly?

What about freedom of protest?

What about the second amendment?

What about the rights and protections detailed under the US Constitution?

After all, these are the principles Washington has been lauding to the world for decades.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was left speechless for 21 seconds when questioned about US President Donald Trump's handling George Floyd protesters. Video / AP

"When the First Amendment rights of peaceful protesters are violated, Chinese propagandists are handed fresh arguments for whataboutism. When our president threatens to deploy the military to "restore law and order", we undermine our credibility to criticise Chinese Communist Party officials when they call for 'restoring law and order' in Hong Kong."

Credibility counts.

"Our diplomats are accustomed to expressing concern about other countries' human rights violations. Today they're being asked by foreign governments to explain our own," one former diplomat told Politico.


Russia's Foreign Ministry is all over the crisis. It's publicly bemoaned "an American tragedy". But it also demands "authorities should not violate the rights of Americans to peaceful protest".

This is odd.

Moscow's own loudly proclaimed policy is that there is no such thing as a peaceful protest. All protests, authorities insist, inevitably escalate to violence. Therefore they must be forcefully broken up before they reach flashpoint.

This policy is regularly applied to any gathering of anti-Putin demonstrations.

State-controlled media commentators have been gloating. And been openly racist.

Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of English-language propaganda network RT, posted racist claims that all US protesters were criminals and drug addicts: "Good luck, friends … All progressive humanity is with you! Hit the whites until they turn black!"

Hypocrisy is a habit.

The Kremlin-imposed leader of Chechnya expressed dismay at events unfolding within the US: "I'm watching with horror the situation in the United States, where the authorities are maliciously violating ordinary citizens' rights."

He said so with tongue firmly in cheek. He's subject to international sanctions for widespread torture and arbitrary killings.

The problem is, Washington's moral authority has once again been deeply undermined.

"Of what leadership in this direction by the United States of America can we speak after what we have all seen — after the actions of the police, and the actions against journalists?" Zakharova rhetorically asks.

Meanwhile, Russian businessmen, journalists and lawyers openly critical of Putin continue to be murdered and jailed.

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US President Donald Trump said it would be a 'great day' for George Floyd in a victory lap speech about the economy. Video / AP

If you can't beat them, join them?

International analysts say maintaining the world order as we know it will take more than supremacy in warships and stealth bombers. It also requires ideological domination.

And that means defending individual freedoms and rights. And the democratic rule of law.

"One of the key points we made to country leaders emerging into democracies was that a nation's military should never be used against its own citizens," a former State Department official told Vanity Fair.

That one act alone is going to undermine Washington's credibility in protesting massacres such as Tiananmen Square.

"Watching the New York Police Department running into protesters, that was like watching Egypt during the Arab spring," a former US ambassador to Nato said after seeing two New York Police Department vehicles driving into protesters.

Meanwhile, Beijing and Moscow continue to market their authoritarian single-party, single-man, systems of government. Especially to their own restive populations.

"Well, I think it is harder for the US to hold itself up as a model that is functional when it not only has got a pandemic that's run amok and it can't control but when its cities are on fire with race riots. So I think it is a – kind of a net win for China," Schell says.

But one black US diplomat – the ambassador to Zimbabwe – maintains hope: "I have also always known that America, conceived in liberty, has always aspired to be better — a shining city on a hill — and that is why I have dedicated my life to her service."

• This article was first published on news.com.au.