A revolutionary tide began to wash over France in 1789. Across the Atlantic, the American public — fresh off its own war of independence that had ended only six years prior — watched the early stages of the revolution unfold with a sense of republican solidarity. In 1793, the revolutionary French government executed King Louis XVI and prepared for war with Great Britain. The nascent American republic faced its most pressing foreign policy question yet: Should the United States, ideologically sympathetic to the revolutionaries, champion the French war effort? Or, should the U.S. pursue the more strategic policy of military neutrality?

The conflict pitted two of the era’s political giants, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, in a bid for the support of President George Washington. Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican and staunch supporter of the revolutionaries, argued the United States’ republican ideals necessitated support of France. Hamilton, a Federalist, promoted non-intervention, casting the revolution as anarchic chaos and emphasizing the value of America’s commercial ties to Britain. Washington eventually sided with his fellow Federalist, and in April 1793 issued a Proclamation of Neutrality. Even if most Americans supported France’s efforts against monarchical Britain, the United States would not commit troops to its cause.

The struggle between Jefferson and Hamilton was as philosophical as it was political. Hamilton, a supreme pragmatist, felt that 1793 America was too susceptible to mob rule to participate in a European war. More importantly, he recognized that a policy of intervention on behalf of democratic movements, even if noble, could force the United States into perpetual war around the globe. Jefferson, informed by a sense of Enlightenment idealism, believed America had an existential duty to promote the spread of democracy around the world. 

Policymakers and the public have grappled over whether idealism or pragmatic realpolitik ought to inform American foreign policy since our nation’s founding. 226 years later, the debate has witnessed a flare-up over the United States’ posture towards the ongoing Hong Kong protests. As the streets of Hong Kong flood with pro-democracy protesters angered by Beijing’s crackdown on the city’s autonomy, the question of to what degree the U.S. should support Hongkongers pits idealism against pragmatism.

As believers in democracy and free speech — and viewing the United States as a defender of these rights — some Hong Kong protesters have publicly waved the Stars and Stripes and sung the Star Spangled Banner. Others have even “chanted pleas for the U.S. to ‘liberate’ Hong Kong” from Chinese oppression, according to a BBC report. It’s clear that these Hongkongers look in part to the United States as a champion of their aims and want to inspire feelings of camaraderie in American audiences over our shared ideals.

The Hongkongers’ pleas have not fallen on deaf ears. American lawmakers of all stripes have voiced their support for Hong Kong’s autonomy, viewing the protection of its democratic society a responsibility of the free West. In September, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., warned Beijing that violent suppression of Hong Kong’s rights would be unacceptable, stating that it would require “America, which is known internationally for standing up for human rights … to take more forceful action.” Former Vice President Joe Biden also defined America’s responsibilities to Hong Kong in idealistic terms, saying last June that “all of us must stand in support of democratic principles and freedom.”

The White House, however, has taken a contradictory stance towards the democratic movement. While President Donald Trump expressed goodwill towards the Hong Kong protesters and condemned China’s crackdown in an address to the U.N. in September, he also “promised Chinese president Xi Jinping that the U.S. would remain quiet” on the Hong Kong turmoil during summer trade talks. 

Clearly, Trump’s rhetorical support of the protests has been tempered by practical considerations of how his words will impact trade with Beijing. Even if America’s sympathies lie with the Hong Kong protesters, idealist policy could prove destructive to trade arrangements.

Trump’s lukewarm approach, rooted in realpolitik, has evidently not been championed by Congress. On Oct. 15, the House of Representatives unanimously passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, a measure reaffirming American commitment to the region’s integrity. A similar version of the bill exists in the Senate, and is sponsored by both Democrats and Republicans.

That the bill has enjoyed such an outpouring of bipartisan support in our hopelessly polarized times speaks volumes as to its significance: It represents a situation in which America will either rise to its democratic ideals, or will shy away from them out of political expediency. 

It boils down to a simple question: Is America to stand up to China and make good on its dedication to freedom? As Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fl., echoed in August, “We have to decide: Do we want to be a defender of democracy?”

Jefferson — and really anyone who values America’s role as a moral lighthouse — would respond to Rubio with a resounding yes. There are few situations in our world today that so obviously present the chance to stand for democracy against authoritarian encroachment. 

Come what may of our challenge to Beijing. Across the Pacific, American flags are waving. If we ignore them, what do we stand for?

Max Steinbaum can be reached at maxst@umich.edu.

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