Shadow Government

Obama’s self-defeating ‘realism’ in Asia

While conducting research for a book I am currently writing on the history of American strategic thought on Asia, I came across a memorandum prepared by the State Department in the early 1840s to guide the United States’ first treaty negotiations with China. The memo stressed that the paramount goal of the U.S. commissioner to ...

Myanmar's junta chief Than Shwe salutes a guard of honour from a poduim on Armed Forces Day in the administrative capital of Naypyidaw on March 27, 2009. Myanmar junta chief Than Shwe urged political parties to shun foreign ideologies if they want democracy as the military put on a show of might at its annual parade. AFP HOTO / Hla Hla Htay (Photo credit should read HLA HLA HTAY/AFP/Getty Images)

While conducting research for a book I am currently writing on the history of American strategic thought on Asia, I came across a memorandum prepared by the State Department in the early 1840s to guide the United States’ first treaty negotiations with China. The memo stressed that the paramount goal of the U.S. commissioner to China was to secure trade access, and that under no conditions was the U.S. delegation to let on that the United States was a republic, since this might frighten the Qing. Instead, the delegation was instructed to highlight that unlike Britain, the United States would maintain a strict policy of noninterference in the affairs of other states and to express respect for the benign rule of the Celestial Emperor toward his people.

In its day, this was probably considered “smart power” and its advocates have made something of a comeback in recent months.

There has been a great deal of speculation about why the Obama administration has changed the tone and substance of U.S. policy on democracy and human rights. It is partly related to the tension between anti-imperialism and human rights in the liberal foreign-policy playbook. Iraq has also contributed to a backlash against values-based foreign policy strategies in a repeat of what happened to democracy-promotion after the Philippines intervention, World War I, and Vietnam. Politics are at play too, since Democrats now seem to believe that they can seize the political high ground on national security by embracing realism as their own (and perhaps peeling off some moderate Republicans in the process).

However, it would be far too simplistic too argue that the administration has “abandoned” human rights and democracy — at least in Asia. In fact, the administration has actually made the case for real pressure on regimes like Burma, North Korea, and even China. The problem is that these statements of policy have been overshadowed by conflicting signals sent in speeches by the president or decisions like not inviting the Dalai Lama to the White House during his visit to Washington this week. Ironically, by being both tough and soft at the same time, the administration risks losing both American prestige and progress on the democratic causes America has always championed.

The consequences of this confused message were obvious in a meeting I had earlier this week with a senior delegation from Vietnam. The delegation raised a trip I had taken to Hanoi in early 2005 to hammer out a religious freedom agreement in advance of the Vietnamese prime minister’s first visit to the White House (I was then NSC senior director for Asia). In that agreement, Vietnam agreed to open hundreds of house churches in the Central Highlands, paving the way for a successful summit and a strategic advance in U.S. relations with Vietnam. My interlocutors this week raised the trip because they wanted to confirm that U.S. strategy had now changed. They noted that President Obama’s U.N. speech identified four pillars, none of which touched on human rights and democracy. Authoritarian states take what leaders say far more seriously than what bureaucrats say. So they asked my advice on how to approach intransigent U.S. bureaucrats now that the president had “moved beyond” the difficult issues of human rights and democracy.

The administration’s confused signals have also hurt on Burma. After weeks of speculation that U.S. sanctions would be lifted — speculation fueled by self-proclaimed advisors to candidate Obama now seeking to ingratiate themselves with the SPDC and by the administration’s own proengagement rhetoric — the administration’s policy review on Burma turned out to be fairly modest in terms of course correction. In fact — and this was largely missed by the press — Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell testified that if there was not progress on securing the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and integrating the NLD and the ethnic minorities into the new constitution, the U.S. would actually seek to increase sanctions on the regime. But by then the regime had already internalized the wrong message and thought that reducing Aung San Suu Kyi’s sentence from three years to 18 months would be enough to get sanctions lifted (even as the regime launched violent new military offensives against ethnic minorities along the Chinese and Thai border). Just as bad, states in ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, are moving away from their own very healthy debate about how to implement the human rights standards in the association’s new charter and focusing on getting the United States to change its policy instead (Singaporeans could not be more gleeful at the opportunity to escape an internal ASEAN debate on values by shifting the burden back on Washington to change its approach). Now the prospects for progress in this new engagement of the regime are diminished because U.S. signals have softened everyone else’s resolve.

Ditto for North Korea. Secretary of State Clinton’s July 23 statement on North Korea, emphasized that the United States will “continue to work closely with other governments, international organizations, and NGOs to address human rights violations and abuses perpetuated by the regime, and would soon announce an envoy for North Korean human rights.” But the senior envoy dispatched to the region has made barely a mention of the situation in the North.

On China, Secretary Clinton fumbled early with statements that she would not let issues like human rights and Tibet interfere with more important strategic issues. But senior administration officials have steadily adjusted since. President Obama raised human rights in welcoming remarks for the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue and in a Sept. 24 speech to the Center for a New American Security, Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg said that he “could not disagree more” with Chinese officials who say that there is no place for human rights in the U.S.-China dialogue.

The problem is that nobody seems to believe any of this anymore. Than Shwe and the thugs running Burma guessed wrong on the administration’s expectations. The Vietnamese clearly think the heat is off on religious freedom in their country. Japan’s new foreign minister, Katsuya Okada, gloated in a joint press conference with the Cambodian foreign minister this week that the U.S. was “moving closer to Japan and Cambodia’s position” — even though Campbell had clearly testified on the content of the policy the week before.

Now with the administration’s decision not to invite the Dalai Lama to the Oval Office during his visit to Washington this week (the first noninvite by a president during the visit of the Dalai Lama since 1991), the White House is compounding the mistakes in its messaging on human rights and democracy in the region.

The elements of a strong policy on human rights and democracy are a matter of record in the statements of senior Obama administration officials (for which they deserve full credit), but those points have been muddled or drowned out by conflicting narratives about engagement, access, “smart power” and the president’s own apparent ambivalence about championing universal values. I suspect this will change as feigned neorealism comes up short in terms of results. Indeed, one can already see some evolution in the administration’s approach to these issues. However, until the president clearly reaffirms America’s commitment to human rights, democracy, and governance, there will be five consequences in Asia that even hard-core realists will lament (not to mention the idealists who would normally be comfortably at the core of a Democratic foreign policy):

  1. Change agents within repressive states who matter most will be demoralized, disempowered and possibly endangered;
  2. Repressive regimes will continue to think that they can get away with much lower standards than the administration could sell to the Congress or the American people if they want to lift sanctions or advance engagement (as happened in Burma with respect to Aung San Suu Kyi’s sentence);
  3. Repressive regimes will continue citing evidence of a higher U.S. tolerance for human rights abuses (something that now worries the Tibetans in the wake of the postponement of the Dalai Lama’s visit to Washington);
  4. The emerging debate in ASEAN, Japan, and Korea on the importance of addressing human rights and democracy will subside;
  5. America’s greatest source of soft power — our values — will suffer.


Michael J. Green is the senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a professor at Georgetown University. He served as the senior National Security Council official on Asia policy during the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: @JapanChair

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