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
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