The 2020 US election, Prostitution Laws & Human Trafficking

In many ways, Senator Joe Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris as his Vice President is historic: She is the first woman of colour on a major party ticket, as well as the first female Vice-Presidential Democratic pick in more than three decades. 

However, many on the left were not overly pleased with the decision, critical of Harris’s  regressive record when she was District Attorney of San Francisco and Attorney General of California. Among these critics were sex workers’ rights advocates, who have been vocal about Harris’s historically aggressive approach to policing the community and her perceived backflips on the decriminalisation of prostitution. 

The legal status of sex work is a domestic factor which can impact upon the incidence of sex trafficking. Under the Trump administration prostitution has remained illegal in all states (with the exception of Nevada). Alternatively, much of Europe as well as Australia and New Zealand have opted to decriminalise or legalise sex work. Eight countries have also adopted the ‘Nordic Model’ where the buying of sex is criminalised, not the seller. 

Senator Harris recently commented that a Biden Administration would be in favour of a national decriminalisation agenda. Would this legislative change work in favour of America’s fight against human trafficking or against it?

Regardless of the 2020 outcome, the current debate on how to best regulate prostitution has divided America. The core legal approaches are as follows:

Prohibition

Prohibition aims to eradicate the market for paid sex, undercutting the sex trafficking business model, by targeting both supply and demand. In practice, this approach is problematic. In the United States, law enforcement overwhelmingly targets the sellers rather than buyers of sex. Annually 70,000-80,000 people are arrested for prostitution and estimates suggest that 70% of those arrested are female prostitutes and madams, 20% are male prostitutes and pimps, while only 10% are buyers. This approach carries an unfair gender bias against females and discourages victims of sex trafficking from coming forward to authorities due to fears that they may be punished. Thus, the sex industry is driven underground making it difficult for the legal system to deliver justice to victims.

Legalisation 

Through legalisation, states opt not deter people from selling or buying sex. Proponents of this approach argue that the criminalisation of prostitution makes trafficking more attractive. They argue that permitting prostitution reduces the prevalence of sex trafficking by allowing sex businesses to recruit local women who freely choose prostitution as their occupation There is insufficient evidence to support such claims. Research suggests that rates of sex trafficking remain high in places where prostitution is legal. European adopters of the legalisation approach, such as the Netherlands and Germany, have ‘the highest numbers of trafficked women in Europe.’

Critics argue that legalisation increases the size of the sex market, encouraging traffickers to exploit women and girls in greater numbers to meet increased demand. Evaluations have also found that legalised prostitution allows traffickers to hide victims in plain sight as consenting sex workers. The Chief of the German organised crime fighting unit in Stuttgart claimed that, since legalisation, his unit was fighting organised crime with ‘one hand tied behind their back’ as legal brothels provide ‘the perfect place to launder the proceeds of other organised crime.’

Strongly supporting the experiences of the Netherlands and Germany, a 2010 quantitative analysis reported that ‘sex trafficking is most prevalent in countries where prostitution is legalised.’ A 2012 study also overwhelmingly supported these findings. Researchers investigated the effect of legalised prostitution on human trafficking inflows from 150 countries and found that on average ‘those with legalised prostitution reported a greater incidence of human trafficking inflows than countries where prostitution is prohibited.’ The study also reviewed the longitudinal effects of legalising and criminalising prostitution and found that the criminalisation of prostitution in Sweden resulted in the shrinking of the prostitution market and the decline of human trafficking inflows while the inverse was true in Germany.

Nordic Model 

The Nordic model, also known as the Demand model, criminalises the buyers of sex, but not sellers. This approach has grown in popularity as it focuses on shrinking the market for prostitution in order to reduce demand for trafficked women. This approach assumes that sex trafficking is lucrative due to the economic principles of supply and demand. ‘Traffickers choose to trade in humans due to the low start-up costs, minimal risks, high profits, and large demand.’

The Swedish law aims to combat human trafficking by acknowledging the connection between prostitution and trafficking. Approximately 400- 600 people are trafficked into Sweden each year. Since Sweden’s adoption of the Nordic model, this number has remained constant, with no significant increase in the number of recorded victims. Two years following the passage of the law, a Swedish taskforce reported a 50% decrease in the number of women prostituting and a 75% decrease in the number of men who bought sex. Thus, while the number of people trafficked into Sweden is believed to have remained level, there have been reported decreases in the number of people selling and buying sex which has reduced the attractiveness of the Swedish sex market for human traffickers. Critics claim that since the Swedish law passed, prostitution has not decreased, but rather been forced underground. While it is difficult to assess these arguments empirically, Sweden is no longer an attractive market within Europe for human traffickers. Swedish police have confirmed this view that the Nordic model has resulted in deterring traffickers from Sweden and pushed them into other countries.

The normative objectives and results of the Nordic model also cannot be underestimated. When Sweden introduced the legislation, it had merely 30% community support. Today the figure is close to 80%. The legislation has had the effect of changing Swedish culture. It is no longer socially acceptable to pay a woman for sex. This, alongside harsher penalties for buyers, has led to Sweden having a much smaller human-trafficking problem compared to other European nations. 

Recommendation

The fight against global sex trafficking is counterproductive if countries have conflicting approaches to regulating domestic prostitution. Having reviewed the various legislative approaches, it is evident that targeting demand is an integral part of any legal solution. Though imperfect, the Nordic model has a proven track record of reducing the demand for prostitution which minimises the incentives for human traffickers to conduct their businesses. 

According to the most recent polling, the Biden Harris ticket will be victorious in November. As the decriminalisation model has proven unsuccessful in reducing human trafficking, Biden and Harris should re-calibrate their official stance on regulation to reflect the Nordic Model. This will shrink the demand for prostitution in the US, thus making the American sex market less attractive to human traffickers. 

The battle to fill the Supreme Court vacancy left by the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

The sudden passing of US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on September 18 has ignited another intense feud over the future of America’s highest court. While there was always the real possibility that 87-year-old Ginsburg might lose her years-long battle with cancer prior to the November 2020 US Presidential Election, the timing of her passing – 46 days out from the election – guarantees another bitter partisan standoff in the US Senate.

Many Democrats seemed certain that Ginsburg would live into 2021, imagining that a Democratic President would then be able to nominate a suitably liberal replacement. Unlike then-candidate Trump in 2016, Joe Biden has so far seemed less eager to make this election a referendum on the Supreme Court. Other than indicating that he would nominate an African American woman, the Biden campaign is yet to publish a list of potential SCOTUS nominees. With Trump set to announce his nominee next week, they will be under increasing pressure to do so in the days ahead.

Senate Republicans are likely to vote to confirm Trump’s nominee in the coming weeks and the predictable partisan cries of hypocrisy have already begun. Democrats argue that Republicans should not be allowed to fill a Supreme Court vacancy before the election because Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell refused to do so in 2016 after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. These arguments are disingenuous.

It is at best misleading to suggest that McConnell ever refused to bring on a vote on Obama nominee Merrick Garland simply because it was an election year. At the time, McConnell and his Republican colleagues were very precise about their reasons for not filling a Supreme Court vacancy in an election year in a situation of divided government. They have also been very transparent about their preparedness to confirm a nominee in 2020.

On 22 February 2016, immediately after Scalia’s passing, McConnell noted that ‘the Senate has not filled a vacancy arising in an election year when there was divided government since 1888.’ When asked in February 2020 about the possibility of a vacancy he stated that, unlike 2016, the Senate was controlled by ‘the same party as the President of the United States. And in that situation we would confirm.’

On this point, history is on McConnell’s side. He is correct that for more than 130 years a pre-election SCOTUS nominee has not been confirmed when the Senate and White House have been controlled by different parties. He is also correct that the Senate, on nine separate occasions, has confirmed the nominee of a President from the same party as the Senate Majority before election day. In fact, sitting Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer was confirmed to the First Circuit in the final days of Jimmy Carter’s Presidency – after he lost his re-election bid to Ronald Reagan.

But this will not satisfy Democrats. The Democratic Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Jerrold Nadler, has already called for Democrats to ‘pack’ the Supreme Court with new progressive judges should they regain control of the White House and Senate in 2020. Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has even suggested that Democrats may attempt to impeach President Trump or Attorney-General William Barr in order to stymie any Senate vote on Trump’s nominee. No matter the outcome, it’s clear that another rancorous and protracted DC battle lies ahead.

The passing of any significant public figure is a time for reflection and compassion. The community should be honouring the person that Ruth Bader Ginsburg was and commemorating a woman who, alongside Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, has become an inspiration to girls across the World. All sides should look to her decades-long close personal friendship with conservative Scalia as a much-needed example for today’s divided America. The US’ first thought should not be the political ramifications for contentious issues such as abortion and government mandated health insurance. It’s a sad indictment of the politicisation of the judiciary that, against the intentions of the Founding Father’s, some just can’t seem to help politicising almost every aspect of modern life in the US.

Xavier has written more on this subject for an article in The Spectator Australia, accessible here.

The Australia-UK FTA could become a blueprint for socially conscious trade

What should the Australia-UK FTA include?

1)   A Freedom of Movement Agreement (FOMA) for British and Australian citizens which could be modelled after the Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement (TTTA) between Australia and New Zealand

2) Prior to the signing of the FTA, Australia should insist that the UK adopt the following amendments to its Modern Slavery Act 2015 to bring it in line with Australia’s Modern Slavery Act 2018:

2.1) to establish a publicly accessible register of all modern slavery statements submitted by businesses to promote greater accountability for non-compliance;

2.2) to mandate reporting requirements for the British public sector to ensure that supply chains utilised for tendered government activities do not facilitate modern slavery;

3) Australia should propose that existing visas granted by the Australian and UK governments with tied conditions be stripped of employer reporting obligations to strengthen the protection of migrant workers against labour exploitation;

Australia and the UK have began the initial stages of negotiating an FTA. This agreement presents an opportunity to remove unnecessary barriers that have restricted trade and travel between our countries. Sharing a rich historical and cultural affinity with one another, the FTA provides the UK and Australia with the chance to deliver an ambitious FTA that not only boosts economic growth and prosperity but also seeks to address the risks of modern slavery that arise through global trade.

In 2011, The Cameron government introduced immigration reforms aimed at reducing non-EU migration which significantly restricted Australians’ ability to work in the UK. These measures have led to a 49% decline in the number of working visas granted to Australians annually: down from 37,375 in 2005 to 19,134 in 2017.

A freedom of movement agreement (FOMA) between our countries would ease current visa barriers and grant Australians and Britons reciprocal rights to live and work abroad. The economic benefits of immigration are clear—free trade leads to a more efficient labour market and allocation of resources. This results in higher average incomes and lower prices for consumer goods. People are also freer to choose between lifestyles, jobs, political jurisdictions and environments.

This arrangement could be modelled after the Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement (TTTA) between Australia and New Zealand which forms part of our Closer Economic Relations (CER) partnership. The TTTA allows citizens of both countries who meet minimum health and character requirements to travel between, live and work in both countries.

Any reluctance to accept a FOMA based on migration issues arising from the UK’s experience in the EU can be easily addressed as the proposed relationship is not analogous to EU membership. Australia and the UK are sovereign states, committed to the rule of law and able to apply strict border controls. Similarly to the TTTA, the UK and Australia would retain sovereign control over immigration and could exercise the power to reject entrants based on public safety, national security or public health considerations. 

Australia and the UK also have similar GDP per capita, meaning that pull factors that motivated citizens of poorer EU member countries such as Bulgaria (where GDP per capita is 9,272.63 USD)  to migrate to the UK in search of higher paying employment will not be a concern in an Australia-UK FOMA. Australia and New Zealand’s TTTA provides a proven framework for promoting sustainable migration between comparable developed countries that share a head of state, the rule of law and equivalent standards of living.

Despite the economic and social advantages of an Australia-UK FOMA, such an ambitious proposal is unlikely to be adopted in the short-term. A preferential visa system akin to the American E-3 visa could be established in the interim. This system would grant Britons and Australians reciprocal working rights upon receiving relevant job offers. The E-3 visa, an integral part of the Australia-US FTA, permits an annual quota of Australians to enter the US, requires minimal paperwork, and is one tenth of the cost of a comparable visa.

Alternatively, were the UK and Australian visa systems to remain unchanged under the proposed FTA, at the very least, the vulnerability of migrant workers could be addressed by abolishing tied visas such as the 417 Working Holiday Visa in Australia and the Domestic Overseas Worker Visa in the UK. Many Australians and Britons travel between our countries on working holidays, often utilising tied visas. These visas require employers to sign off on the visa conditions of migrant workers, exposing our citizens to risks of exploitation and modern slavery. For these reasons, at minimum this FTA should address the vulnerabilities of migrant workers under the tied visa system.   

Increases in the movement of goods, services and people due to the Australia-UK FTA will heighten modern slavery risks. As our countries have both enacted Modern Slavery Acts and share a commitment to combatting human trafficking, the FTA presents a natural opportunity to encourage a ‘race to the top’ on modern slavery social policy.

Under the Australian act, the Australian Public Service is required to report modern slavery statements and a central repository containing modern slavery statements is publically available. Unlike Australia, the UK public sector is not required to report modern slavery statements and modern slavery statements from the private sector are not publically accessible. Given these inconsistent standards, Australia could request that prior to signing the FTA, the UK align its laws with Australian legislation to increase accountability and awareness of links to modern slavery in British supply chains.

If the Australia-UK FTA manages to liberalise unnecessary visa barriers while improving migrant-worker protections and supply chain oversight, it will become a blueprint for socially conscious trade. 

The Wolf Warriors of China are not diplomatic, who are they fooling?

China’s approach to diplomacy has adopted a brand new modus operandi. It is diametrically opposed to almost all diplomatic niceties once pursued and fostered by Chinese diplomats in their dealings with the world. Today, Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Xining’s insists that Chinese diplomats show a “fighting spirit” and become a vicious pack of wolf warriors. Despite such blatant behaviour on the international stage, the CCP continues to defend their actions arguing that they are diplomatic and noble. Is this hypocrisy really fooling anyone?

In recent months Australia has been the recipient of insults and threats from China, we are not alone in such attacks. From North America to Europe, to Asia and Africa, the Chinese wolf warriors have set fire to the goodwill that had been built up over two decades of so-called smile diplomacy.

On Wednesday, Foreign Minister of China, Wang Xining gave a speech at the Australian National Press Club in Canberra. His remarks underscored the importance that China attaches to mutual respect, goodwill, fairness and a grand vision for the China-Australia bilateral. All seemingly diplomatic aspirations. However, a glance at the CCP’s recent international behaviour reveals the utter insincerity of these remarks.

Consider the virtue of mutual respect, which Wang described as following basic norms of sovereignty and non-interference in international affairs. When the Turnbull government passed legislation to restrict the activities of China from interfering in and covertly influencing Australian democratic institutions, Beijing responded with rage. 

Wang’s claim of Chinese goodwill which he characterised as the need to resolve differences in an amicable manner also fails to accurately capture China’s recent behaviour. China ruthlessly imposed economic restrictions on Australian barley exports in response to the Morrison government’s call for an investigation into the origins of COVID-19, a virus which has killed hundreds of thousands worldwide and has reeked economic and social destruction.

Regarding the principle of fairness, Wang placed that virtue in the context of a non-discriminatory investment and trade environment. Yet, China has made it blatantly clear that is seeks more than merely win-win trading relationships with other countries. China has the most restrictive trading rules of all major world economies and has a history of intellectual property theft and forced transfers.

Last, the aspiration that our two countries evolve from economic partners towards agreeing on a ‘grand vision’ to enhance stability and prosperity in the Pacific region. While this sounds promising in a speech, the values of China and Australia are in conflict. China’s grand strategy seeks to shape the Pacific in a hierarchical and Sino-centric manner where the rights and privileges afforded to China are different to privileges of smaller countries.

Initiatives such as the Belt and Road Initiative, Made in China 2025 and concessional loaning to Pacific developing states enable China to weaken America’s alliances in the region and in its place create regional dependence on China. In the long term, this will enable China to dictate prices, policy and discourse when interacting with its economic partners. China’s “shared vision” is one in which Australia and others play a deferential role to China.

Australia and the world are less concerned with what Beijing says and more with what it is doing. For this reason, the Morrison government has moved to use external affairs powers available under the Constitution to outlaw independent state initiatives with China (and other countries) deemed to violate Australia’s national interest.

Most notably, Victoria’s previous commitment to the Belt and Road Initiative will not be permitted to go ahead. This is a critical step that will significantly diminish China’s political influence in Australia and will also ensure that Australia can speak with one voice in managing what will continue to be a problematic relationship with the CCP. 

Judging from China’s previous form, the CCP’s response to Australia’s new legislation will blatantly violate China’s stated virtues of mutual respect, goodwill and fairness.


ABC


Chinese diplomat Wang Xining’s National Press Club address

A Model Partnership

When two Australian Ministers travel to the US at such an uncertain and volatile time in history, it says something about the strength and significance of the relationship between the United States and Australia.

This week, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds traveled to Washington D.C for the Australia-US Ministerial Consultations. AUSMIN provides a principal bilateral forum to discuss approaches on major global and regional political issues and cooperate on foreign security and defence. Notably, Marise and Linda are the first members of the Australian executive to travel overseas since Australia borders closed in March.

While other American allies have declined the Trump administration’s request to resume in-person meetings, suggesting instead to delay appointments or hold conferences virtually, the effort made by Payne and Reynolds to attend AUSMIN in Washington D.C demonstrates the level of priority that the Australian government places on the bilateral relationship.

A hallmark of the Trump Administration has been the trade war against Beijing. Trump has clashed with Beijing over numerous issues including Huawei, unfair trading practices and China’s cyber warfare. COVID-19, has only agitated tensions further with the US strongly criticising China for its mismanagement of the pandemic which has taken the lives of 150,000 Americans to date, destroyed the US economy and severely harmed Trump’s re-election prospects. Throughout this time, members of the Trump Administration such as Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo have rallied for their partners to take a unified stand with them against China.

Australia, a small population in the Indo-Pacific region of the world has managed to live up to this call by confronting the challenge of an increasingly belligerent China. Australia was the first among the international community to call for an inquiry into the mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis, a move that deeply angered and offended China. Despite relentless economic threats and bullying from Beijing, the Australian government also declared that China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea were illegal. Further, in response to China’s new security laws in Hong Kong which seek to undermine the human rights protections of Hong Kong citizens, Australia suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong and offered citizenship to dissidents.

Australia has shown that when it counts, it is not afraid to stand up for its values and choose a side. For decades, politicians, diplomats and scholars have stressed the difficult decision Australia will be forced to make due to its strong trade with China and military alliance with the United States as tensions between the countries reach an inevitable boiling point. While it is early days, it appears the choice has not been as difficult as some presumed. Australia has chosen to uphold its values and stand by its closest ally, despite the obvious risk of economic reprisal.

The AUSMIN meeting between the respective foreign and defence ministers – Mike Pompeo, Mark Esper, Marise Payne and Linda Reynolds went beyond the usual formalities as both countries are deeply engaged and committed to the challenge presented by China. The US acknowledged Australia’s bravery in standing up to China’s threats and utilised the opportunity to model the AUS-US alliance, juxtaposing Australia’s support with the tepid support it has received from some of its other allies.

A commitment to stick closest when times are tough is the true test of any relationship. This year, Australia and America have continuously proven that the relationship is far more than mateship or an obligatory tradition, it is a world-class model of an alliance which is above personalities and greater than the challenges of the day.

Does American National Identity still exist in 2020?

Watching the state of affairs in the US over the past few months has left many of us in a state of paralysis. Our hearts have bled for the millions of American lives lost to COVID. The violent imagery of George Floyd’s last breath and subsequent violent riots and protests have poured across our screens. From an Australian perspective, it seems America has never been more politically and socially divided. One might argue that Americans have lost the connective national tissue which once bound them together.

In spite of the recent social and political upheaval we are observing within the United States, it is important to keep in mind that socio-cultural movements are nothing new for the American people. A glance at US history depicts numerous movements which have fought to uphold and actualise the rights of minorities. I argue that the social movements bubbling within America today such as Black Lives Matter do not undermine the notion of an American identity, rather they demonstrate the attempt of modern Americans to live up to the founding values of their nation. In this way, movements of social change can help the United States move closer towards actualising the hopes and dreams that the American founding fathers had for a new nation.

American national identity is built upon the unique and radical founding of the United States.   Unlike nations whose identity is based on shared ethnicity and ancestry, America was formed on the idea of “the essential dignity of the individual human being, and of certain inalienable rights to freedom and justice.” Though at the time of America’s founding, these admirable ideals were not realised for most citizens, American history has steadily embraced and began to live up to the freedoms expressed in seminal founding texts such as the Declaration of Independence and U.S Constitution. Leader’s such as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. come to mind as men who enabled America to live up to their founding commitments by abolishing slavery and segregation. While America has never been perfectly aligned with its founding values, what appears to bind Americans together is a dedication to see the United States lives up to its founding values.

The idea of American identity is under constant pressure to change by those who experience barriers when attempting to access freedom and equality in the United States. Racism is one of these barriers that is deeply rooted within American history. The United States will always contend with the harsh reality that while European colonists could claim an American identity, people trafficked as slaves from Africa were not entitled to the same privileges. The practice of slavery continued in the United States until 1865 with the introduction of the 13th Amendment.  Following this, black Americans endured an entire century of racial persecution and discrimination before the promises of the Civil War were realised. While America’s Declaration of Independence and the Constitution proclaimed universal liberty, such documents coexisted alongside the exploitation and exclusion of black Americans. Despite an increasingly diverse US population and racial progress [evidenced through achievements such as the election of Barak Obama, the first African American president], some Americans argue that there is an entrenched racial component to American identity that divides whites and non-whites. 

Building upon historic injustices against African Americans, The Black Lives Matter movement has emerged in response to controversial law enforcement policies and police brutality against members of the African American community. At the core of this issue is the social concern that African Americans are not afforded the same societal protection as other Americans. Black Lives Matter demonstrates a powerful message: African Americans, like all Americans, long for freedom, equality of opportunity and access to the American Dream. Historic and contemporary racism in the United States have prevented African Americans from accessing this promise. American citizens responsible for discriminating and continuing to exclude African Americans from the benefits of American identity are contradicting the very values which underpin American identity. In this way, the plight of members of the African American community throughout history expresses a pattern: the continuous attempt to reconcile society with the country’s founding values.

Social change in the United States has improved the freedoms of its people, reconciling the US with its founding principles and helping to evoke the true sense of what it means to be American.



What makes America unique?

Defining Elements of American national identity: Exceptionalism, Volunteerism and the American Dream

In an ordinary year, the United States expects roughly 76 million people to visit their country. People from all over the globe come to enjoy the beauty of American landscapes from the breathtaking Grand Canyon to the Utah Mountain ranges. They come to re-live American history by visiting the many historical landmarks and museums such as the nation’s capitol in Washington D.C, Gettysburg cemetery and Mount Vernon.

If those things don’t do it for you, there is a multitude of entertainment on broadway, world-class theme parks and sporting events, the best shopping in the world and a choice of global cuisines – available with a supersize option!

The United States of America certainly is the land of the plenty, and tourists commonly marvel at the confident, patriotic and entrepreneurial nature of the American people. We can point to these common stereotypes, but what is it that actually makes the American nation and its people so different and remarkable from the rest of us?

Having lived and worked in the United States, I boil it down to three defining characteristics. American Exceptionalism, Volunteerism and the Dream. It is these three components that have defined America since its founding and set the U.S apart from the rest of the globe.

In the era following World War II, America has made strides to become the world’s economic, military and cultural hegemon. US exceptionalism is predicated on American’s strong tradition of successful immigration. Since its founding, America has been the ‘nation of nations’ and a refuge for the poor, oppressed and persecuted; sentiments which are inscribed inside the base of the Statue of Liberty. In 1858, Lincoln stated that when immigrants internalised the creed that “all men are created equal,” they “have a right to claim it as though they were blood and flesh of the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence.” Today, immigration continues to be largely supported by both major political parties. In contrast to much of Europe, America has no major political party calling for ethno-cultural policies that would see a ban on immigration. These combined factors afford Americans a world-leading standard of living. Such standards outrank all other countries of major size and geopolitical importance. US history of post-WWII dominance and leadership on the international stage has reinforced and magnified traditional conceptions of American exceptionalism: a core aspect of American national identity today.

A long-standing tradition of volunteerism is another hallmark of American national identity based on the founding values of personal responsibility, moralism and equality of opportunity. It was Benjamin Franklin who formed the first volunteer fire department in 1736, and many American militias during the Revolutionary War were comprised of volunteers. Some of the most well-known American charitable organizations, such as the YMCA and the American Red Cross, date back to the 19th century. Writing about his travels through the US in the 1830s, the French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville frequently commented on Americans’ tendency to form voluntary civil associations. He was impressed by their desire to come together with their friends and neighbours to accomplish community goals. Today, this same tradition of civic duty and community development is exemplified by the 40% of Americans who actively volunteer their time. This figure sets the United States apart as one the most philanthropic nations in the world. The strong culture and history of volunteerism in the United States lives on today and continues to enable a highly diverse population to unite around shared goals and common purpose.

A further core element of American national identity with particular relevance today is the concept of the American Dream. While the US is a country consisting of a ‘melange of beliefs, cultures and traditions,’ its common thread is that America is the land of opportunity.  The Pilgrims realised this dream, imagining a new destiny for themselves as did the founding fathers. In the 1830’s de Tocqueville observed the ‘charm of anticipated success’ in American society and his research led him to discover that this same optimistic outlook existed among the European colonists some 200 years’ prior.The American Dream is an elastic element which continues to be a defining element of American identity in the 21st century. Athletes invoke it during championship games, immigrants leave their homes in search of it and aspiring politicians appeal to it as a basis for their candidacies. Imbued with a sense of community, the Dream speaks to people of all races, ethnicities. From its earliest settlers to its most recent arrivals, the shared hope and aspiration at the heart of the American Dream is another key unifying concept of American identity. American exceptionalism, the American Dream and volunteerism each remain central in American culture today and establish a shared American identity that is consistent with the nation’s founding ideals of freedom, personal responsibility, equality of opportunity, stewardship and hope. 

The United States of America is a wonderful country, though it is not perfect, it has never claimed to be. Today it is promising to see that the values of US Exceptionalism, giving back to one’s community through volunteering and the American Dream of a better life have endured from the nation’s founding and enable today’s American citizens to live prosperous and free lives.

Hong Kong: One Country, One System

In light of the ongoing 2019-20 Hong Kong protests, China’s ceremonial parliament has voted to bypass Hong Kong’s Legislative Council to enact dramatic national security legislation. According to the Chinese government, these new laws are intended to crackdown on ‘secessionist and subversive activity … terrorism and foreign interference’. Beijing has previously blamed the lack of a national security law for last year’s alarming anti-extradition protests. However, activists remain concerned that these laws will undermine civil liberties and bring an end to Hong Kong’s unique partial autonomy.

Hong Kong is currently governed under a “one country, two systems” model underpinned by two key documents: The Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law. These established China’s rule over Hong Kong – subject to significant caveats including the continuation of British capitalism, maintenance of the common law, protection of civil liberties and an understanding that Beijing would not directly intervene in the city for a period of 50 years from the city’s 1997 handover. Significantly, Article 23 of the Basic Law stipulates that Hong Kong shall enact national security legislation “on its own.”

While details about the application of these new security laws remain unclear, they clearly encroach upon Hong Kong’s existing autonomy from China. The ‘crimes’ stipulated in the security laws have vague definitions and could potentially include any attempts to voice dissent against the Government. Such laws may also lead to widespread arrests on arbitrary political charges, a crackdown on free speech, and the unleashing of China’s security organs, such as the Ministry of State Security and the People’s Armed Police. If these reforms are unable to bridge the divide between Hong Kongers and Beijing, then Hong Kong may remain a tinderbox of revolt for years to come.

The enactment of this legislation has prompted wide-spread criticism from international actors such as the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada. In the United States, the Trump Administration has announced that it will no longer treat Hong Kong as being autonomous from the Chinese mainland as a result of Beijing’s latest intervention. In addition to the political ramifications, Hong Kong’s status as a financial hub is now in danger. For businesses, the main value of the city is that its financial and legal systems are more transparent and fair compared to China’s. These features make Hong Kong an attractive option for both foreign and Chinese firms looking to prove their credibility in the region. Any erosion of the rule of law and freedom of speech risks undermining this appeal.

Following US President Donald Trump’s announcement that he would strip Hong Kong of its special privileges, China’s state media have taken aim at the US by comparing #BlackLivesMatter protests with the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. A commentary published in China Daily – a mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party – said US politicians should do their jobs and help solve problems in the US, instead of trying to create new problems and troubles in other countries.

Chinese attempts to equate protesting in some US cities with wide-spread calls for democracy and freedom from China in Hong Kong are disingenuous and politically-motivated. At this critical time, it is important that Western media outlets critically assess China’s claims and report them for what they are. Racial tensions in the US and Chinese interventions in Hong Kong are entirely seperate issues. Failure to recognise these clear differences and blind acceptance of CCP rhetoric plays right into Beijing’s hand and may cost the people of Hong Kong their freedom.

Mearsheimer got it right

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, John Mearsheimer articulated a bold thesis- the great-power rivalry was not over. While Mearsheimer was ignored, Covid-19 has exposed the intense Sino-American security competition that he predicted.

In The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, Mearsheimer, argued that insecurity and conflict remained inevitable structures of the anarchic international system. Further, Mearsheimer argued that as China increased in power and ambition it would become more assertive in protecting its security and prosperity depended. As the global hegemon, the US would go to great lengths to stop the rising power from dominating Asia.

Two decades ago, Realism the long-standing theory of international relations took a hit following the unexpected end to the Cold War. Theories of Liberalism and Constructivism flourished and analysed what appeared to be a new world entering an era of increased globalisation and interdependency. State rivaries and military power seemed to matter less. The prevailing wisdom was that rapid economic growth ensured the emerg­ence of a democratic polity in China, as it had in Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. China was categorised as a developing country, afforded grace for its communist rule while it “peacefully” progressed and lifted millions out of poverty. It was thought that the more China embraced­ global capitalism, the more likely it would integrate peacefully in the rules-based international order.

However, Mearsheimer contested such Wilsonian thinking, arguing that the brutal competition of power is a root function of the structure of the international system, a reality which has been true since the time of Thucydides. He called this the “tragic nature of great- power politics.” In an anarchical international community, without a central body to enforce rules and norms, great powers find it impossibl­e to trust each other. The tragedy is that striving for security leads to heightened tensions, a concept known by international scholars as the ‘security dilemma.’

For Mearsheimer, the consequences were clear: by growing ­enchanted with the Chinese market, the world was choosing to play with fire. Far from progressing to become a ­responsible democratic nation, Beijing was bound to upset the strategic sensibilities of neighbouring states, from Japan and South Korea to India and Vietnam. As a result, Mearsheimer advised the US to pivot strongly in Asia, deepen security ties with its allies and develop new strategic partnerships with old foes.

Alas, after America’s Cold War victory, both Democratic and Republican administrations indulged in what Mearsheimer’s academic colleague Stephen Walt calls the “hubristic fantasy” of global “liberal­ hegemony”, which both scholars warned would cost the US dearly in prestige and influence. Meanwhile, China’s rise continued. The CCP advanced its defence mechanisms, developed per­sis­t­ent cyber-espionage and pushed nationalism supported by wide-spread propaganda. Today, China plans to forcefully takeover Hong Kong alongside its relentless intimidation of Taiwan and aggressive­ build-up of military islands in the South China Sea. China is now showing every possible sign of seeking to overthrow the US-led security system in the region.

We now have an important and pressing choice to make. Will the United States follow the advice of Mearsheimer and lead a coalition to pursue a containment strategy. Or, adopt an approach of “engaging and constraining” China, as former Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade head Peter Varghese suggests.

American national identity: land of the free

National identity refers to a shared belief among a group of individuals that they form a cohesive whole due to shared history, connection to a territory and common distinctive characteristics. Within modern America there are some who question the existence of a national identity. Others argue that while a shared American identity currently exists, social division and fragmentation will result in the demise of US national identity. Contrary to such views, national identity in the United States has proven to be resilient throughout history and plays an important role in continuing to unify a diverse population.

The US was formed on the idea of “the essential dignity of the individual human being, and of certain inalienable rights to freedom and justice.” This identity is exemplified in American leaders and seminal texts such as the Declaration of Independence, The U.S Constitution and Bill of Rights, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Martin Luther King Jr.’ s “I Have a Dream” speech. US national identity continues to be comprised of America’s founding ideals, evidenced through the American Dream, American Exceptionalism and volunteerism.

Puritan settler John Winthrop conceived of America as a “city on a hill,” a distinct place with a heaven-sent obligation to build a new world. In the aftermath of the War of Independence, many citizens agreed that Americans had “formed a character peculiar to themselves, and distinct from other nations.” Today, many Americans continue to perceive their nation in this exceptional light. In the era following World War II, America has made strides to become the world’s economic, military and cultural hegemon. US exceptionalism is further predicated on American’s strong tradition of successful immigration. Since its founding, America has been the ‘nation of nations’ and a refuge for the poor, oppressed and persecuted; sentiments which are inscribed inside the base of the Statue of Liberty. In 1858, Lincoln stated that when immigrants internalised the creed that “all men are created equal,” they “have a right to claim it as though they were blood and flesh of the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence.” Today, immigration continues to be largely supported by both major political parties. In contrast to much of Europe, America has no major political party calling for ethno-cultural policies that would see a ban on immigration. These combined factors afford Americans a world-leading standard of living. Such standards outrank all other countries of major size and geopolitical importance. US history of post-WWII dominance and leadership on the international stage has reinforced and magnified traditional conceptions of American exceptionalism: a core aspect of American national identity.   

A long-standing tradition of volunteerism is another hallmark of American national identity based on the founding values of personal responsibility, moralism and equality of opportunity. It was Benjamin Franklin who formed the first volunteer fire department in 1736, and many American militias during the Revolutionary War were comprised of volunteers. Some of the most well-known American charitable organizations, such as the YMCA and the American Red Cross, date back to the 19th century. Writing about his travels through the US in the 1830s, the French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville frequently commented on Americans’ tendency to form voluntary civil associations. He was impressed by their desire to come together with their friends and neighbours to accomplish community goals. Today, this same tradition of civic duty and community development is exemplified by the 40% of Americans who actively volunteer their time. This figure sets the United States apart as one the most philanthropic nations in the world. The strong culture and history of volunteerism in the United States lives on today and continues to enable a highly diverse population to unite around shared goals and common purpose.

Another aspect of American national identity with particular relevance today is the concept of the American Dream. This refers to the belief that anyone can attain their own version of success in a society where upward mobility is possible for everyone. Imbued with a sense of community, the Dream speaks to people of all races, ethnicities and cultures. The Pilgrims realised this dream, imagining a new destiny for themselves as did the founding fathers. In the 1830’s de Tocqueville observed the ‘charm of anticipated success’ in American society and his research led him to discover that this same optimistic outlook existed among the European colonists some 200 years’ prior. The American Dream is an elastic element which continues to be a defining element of American identity in the 21st century. Athletes invoke it during championship games, immigrants leave their homes in search of it and aspiring politicians appeal to it as a basis for their candidacies. From its earliest settlers to its most recent arrivals, the shared hope and aspiration at the heart of the American Dream is a key component of American identity.

The idea of American identity is under constant pressure to change by those who experience barriers when attempting to access freedom and equality in the United States. While America’s Declaration of Independence and the Constitution proclaim universal liberty, such documents have coexisted alongside the exploitation and exclusion of black Americans and women. Despite immense social progress, some Americans argue that racism and sexism continue to divide American societies. The Black Lives Matter movement (BLM) has emerged in response to controversial law enforcement policies and police brutality against members of the African American community. At the centre of this issue is the social concern that African Americans are not afforded the same societal protection as other Americans. The #MeToo movement similarly draws upon the historic injustices encountered by American women while also raising awareness of the contemporary experiences of sexual abuse survivors. The movement exemplifies the intention of American women to seek freedom from barriers of sexual exploitation they experience, which currently prevent them from realising the full effects of freedom, equality and the hope implicit within the American Dream.

These movements both symbolise a powerful message: all Americans long for freedom, equality of opportunity and access to the American Dream. Historic and contemporary racism and sexism in the United States have prevented people from accessing these promises. In Gunnar Myrdal’s description, America has represented the ideals—not the perfect execution—of liberty. Therefore, contest within the United States does not undermine the concept of US national identity, rather the ongoing quest for greater freedom within America attempts to reconcile society with the country’s founding values, emphasising the continued relevance of core aspects of American identity: liberty, equality and hope.

American national identity is broad enough to encompass all citizens, yet powerful enough to establish a shared connection between Americans, their country and their national aspirations. Though the United States will continue to face pressure to change, American identity will remain consistent and will continue to uphold the shared culture, ideals and values which founded America. 

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