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Pivotal Power

June 4, 2009
Post-Tiananmen, it’s no easier seeking human rights abroad

A historic day in Tiananmen Square.

Today is shaping up to be a big and strange day on the human rights front. Between the 20th anniversary of the June 4 massacre at Tiananmen Square in China, President Obama’s speech in Cairo and the trial of the two Americans detained in North Korea, we have a showcase of the complexity of promoting human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

The pursuit of American values in foreign policy has always been half-assed compromised, at best. Other national interests, like security or financial gain, have pushed our better angels aside on a regular basis.

We want cheap oil and assistance with regional crises, so we look past the fact that Saudi Arabia, where President Obama was yesterday, offers no guarantee for freedom of religion, greatly restricts the media, tolerates widespread violence against women and doesn’t allow them to drive cars or go out in public without being completely covered. Egypt, a staunch U.S. ally that President Obama visits today, is a democracy in name only, and houses thousands of political prisoners.

I could go on. America does act on principle, but generally when other interests are not skewered by our doing so (though, in my book, that is better than never acting on principle).

The globalization of threats exacerbates this dynamic. Some of the same countries that brutalize their citizens and reject pluralism are our necessary partners on global challenges that daily affect our security
and prosperity.

China is the poster child for this quandry, as I recently wrote about with Bill Schulz, who headed Amnesty International for 12 years.  Figuring out how to improve human rights there from the outside, while never easy or effective, has only gotten more vexing since the pro-democracy protesters were quashed in Tiananmen Square.

China holds keys to many of the foreign policy challenges facing the Obama administration and, indeed, the world. For evidence, look at the recent travel schedules of high-level U.S. officials. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner was in China this week, because the size of China’s stimulus package and the pace of its evolution to a domestic-led growth model are critical factors in getting the global economy back on its feet. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi traveled to China last week to discuss climate — China is now the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world; together, the U.S. and China account for 40 percent of emissions.   We can’t lick global warming without China’s serious engagement.  Yesterday, Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg discussed North Korea’s nuclear program with leaders in Beijing. China is North Korea’s major trading partner, controlling some 70 to 90 percent of North Korea’s fuel supply; if anyone can drag Pyongyang back to the negotiating table, it is China. 

In the last twenty years, while standards of living in China have risen dramatically, political reform has stalled out and dissidents continue to live in terror. This is kind of like knowing your fellow firefighter, a generally competent professional, goes home and beats his wife.  That is gut-wrenching, but are you going to turn down his help holding the hose when a fire threatens your town?

It is not that we have less leverage now because of our interdependency — interdependency works both ways, after all.  The fact is that we have never have had much traction to influence the internal political workings of a large, proud and complex country. And now, we have many more areas in which our fates are intertwined. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pointed out early on, we cannot let our dialogue on human rights prevent progress on other fronts.

There are steps we can take to continue to support incremental progress on rights and pluralism in China, as Bill and I discuss in our article and that he explores in a recent report. In addition to those, which include making common cause with other nations who share our concerns, it is also important to continue to articulate our values. It gives succor to those brave souls on the ground who are trying to fight oppression and, more importantly, it reminds us that if we want our words to be taken seriously, we need to keep our own record on human rights and democracy as clean as they can be.

– Nina Hachigian




[…] no freedom of speech, the suppression of Tibet for 50 years now and the 20th anniversary of the quashing of the Tianamen Square, etc., makes me wonder, how modern and pro-west China actually […]


Freedom? The concept is alien to eastern culture. Our tolerance to freedom is limited to our preference to order peace and harmony. Next is justice and fairplay. Freedom is a luxury. A concept that is an illusion and only the deluded thinks they have.


How many Americans view China with clear lenses? I hope they get a proper prescription to see clearly and also a mirror to see themselves. Stop selling the world your bigoted view. American wants to see a weak China demoratic or not.


Uighurs given residence in paradise islands at uncle sams expense. All the islands benefitted immensely and is a good investment as they can be used to infiltrale China to stir unrest.


Well said. I disagree with some of the policies you appear to support because they compromise our values even as they accelerate our unsustainable economic course, but I especially applaud your clear criticism of those compromises.


Three Quotes from the Main Literary Piece Above
(to keep–[not reflecting Below so much the details of what is written Above but emulating by means of them the forces which are being applied in the subterranean regions beneath the expressions of the symbologies of the words here as expressed] –as much as possible: to the Strength (and Streams) of Thought produced by [the expressive Force of] the Lady who has written the Original Article).

“And now, we have many areas in which our fates are intertwined”
[…’areas’ might denote simple and/or complex ‘regions’ of Thought on whatever level. ‘Intertwined’ might denote a ‘resolution’ toward ‘strength’ of ‘combined’ yet similar ‘threads’ making the result of the intertwinings more durable. ‘Fates’ might imply what can be known from mythology or from conversation concerning Providence and Destiny, etc.]

“There are steps we can take to continue to support incremental progress”
[…’steps’ can equal the idea of moving from one level of Awareness to another. ‘Progress’ implying movement through regional terrains with or without a ‘map’. ‘Support’ implied by a previous knowledge of the usage of the map. ‘Incremental’ implying ‘stages’ by which unknown terrain can be studied…or, if the given terrain is previously known: to explore the terrain in greater depth.]

“The globalization of threats exacerbates…”
[…’images’ of fire might be applied to the word ‘exacerbates’ by way of application; especially, when combined with the words: ‘globalization’ and ‘threats’…]

These Three Quotes may be, when combined in their Unified Subconcious/Concious Essence: the very beginnings of some One Unique Form implicated in the Intertwined Three-Ply Threads Of Quintessential Analysis
[spiritual/mental/physical] which examines, in part, the very Substance of
That-Which-Is-By-Its-Own-Nature, itself, as it flows into Ceaseless Manifestations, like Conceptual Oceans Of The Unknown which form thenselves into more Clear Channels Of Awareness by Ways Of The Wandering Streams Of Contemplation upon which the Varied Landscapes Of Regional Political Terrains do rise and fall throughout many levels of Geometrical Planes Of Parallel Layers Cosmic Thought as they pertain to the Hierarchies Of Affairs on Earth…both beneath the Obvious Surface Plane of what is easily enough seen in Life and at the greater depths of levels which course their natural ways through the tunnels of labyrinthine mazes of caverns leading to various subterranean regions of yet unexpressed Thought Processes as they are applied according to contours of religious landscapes by varying Theological-Philosophies which seem only the, sometimes, seen but more often are more, by Nature, the hidden aspects of Human Relations as they change, whether on the surface-landscapes of a World-In-Flux, on a daily basis like the liquid fires of opposing ideologies and religious terminologies or in realms not so often considered as directly relevant…but important, even so, to the depths of the thinking Mind
which has not yet explored every detail.

It might be remembered as well what Ecclesiastes
wrote of the three-ply cord…so long ago.

Nina Hachigian is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the co-author of “The Next American Century: How the U.S. Can Thrive as Other Powers Rise.” She has worked on the staff of the National Security Council in the White House and been a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. She specializes in U.S.-China relations and great power relationships, multilateral institutions and U.S. foreign policy.

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