Diminishing human rights gets us nothing with China
By Aaron Friedberg During her recent visit to China, Secretary Clinton told her hosts that the Obama administration will not allow human rights issues to "interfere" with Sino-American cooperation on "the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis." The kindest thing one can say about these remarks is that they ...
By Aaron Friedberg
By Aaron Friedberg
During her recent visit to China, Secretary Clinton told her hosts that the Obama administration will not allow human rights issues to "interfere" with Sino-American cooperation on "the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis."
The kindest thing one can say about these remarks is that they do not really express a fundamental shift in the substance of U.S. policy. Neither George Bush nor Bill Clinton before him placed human rights at the top of the U.S.-China agenda, and neither was willing to press the issue hard enough to disrupt other aspects of the relationship. Clinton’s blunt declaration was presumably intended to reassure Beijing that the new administration does not intend to change course and, if anything, is even less inclined to make a fuss about human rights than its predecessors.
Despite their apparent lack of substance, Clinton’s comments will have real costs. Her words cannot help but be demoralizing to those brave souls (like the signers of the recent Charter 08 document), who continue to risk arrest by calling for fundamental political reforms in China. Her statement will also reinforce Beijing’s growing sense of its own power and reduce the U.S. government’s admittedly limited leverage over its internal policies. In the past, concern over foreign reaction, or a desire to improve the diplomatic "atmosphere" with Washington, has sometimes caused China to temper its treatment of domestic dissidents. Though this is certainly not what she intended, Clinton’s statement is likely to be interpreted by Beijing as a free pass on human rights.
In its eagerness to differentiate itself from the Bush administration, which it faults for having been overly "ideological," the Obama team risks leaning too far in the opposite direction. As Ronald Reagan demonstrated, democracies can do business with authoritarian regimes without appearing to accept the premise of moral equivalency.
Downplaying human rights in hopes of making gains in other areas is usually described as the preferred approach of foreign policy "realists." But as every true realist knows, great powers are cold monsters; they act in accordance with what they perceive to be their national interests, not what others say (or don’t say) about them. Beijing will doubtless be pleased if the United States is less outspoken about how it treats political dissidents, religious groups, and ethnic minorities. To believe that, in response, it will change its policies on North Korea and Iran, currency valuation, carbon emissions, Taiwan or the pace of its military buildup is the antithesis of realism.
Aaron L. Friedberg is Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University, where he has taught since 1987, and co-director of the School of Public and International Affairs' Center for International Security Studies.
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