Who cares what Hillary Clinton says to China's leaders about human rights?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Feb. 23 2009 7:56 PM

Just Words

Who cares what Hillary Clinton says to China's leaders about human rights?

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Click image to expand.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in China

 "We pretty much know what they're going to say."— Hillary Clinton, on the Chinese reaction to discussions of human rights, religious freedom, and Tibet

Amnesty International is "extremely disappointed," and rightly so. Human Rights Watch's Asia director fears that America's human rights discussions in China will become "a dead-end 'dialogue of the deaf,' " and she has a point. As for the dissident founders of the new Chinese Charter '08 movement—the biggest political protest group in years—we don't know what they thought, because they were all under house arrest during Hillary Clinton's visit to Beijing. I'm sure they, too, were disappointed by our new secretary of state's failure to discuss human rights with her hosts during her stay in China.

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Although I sympathize with these critics, I find I increasingly don't care what Clinton says about human rights to China's leaders. Neither should they. She's right: These exchanges have become ritualized. I also don't care what she says about human rights to the leaders of Iran, Zimbabwe, or North Korea if those words will have no meaning in practice, anyway. Grandiloquent human rights speeches that amount to nothing have been a hallmark of U.S. foreign policy since at least 1956, when we didn't come to the aid of a Hungarian rebellion we helped incite. Fifty years of broken promises are quite enough, and if we're abandoning that habit now, good riddance.

I do, however, care quite a lot about what the new administration is going to do about human rights on the ground, and, to date, both Clinton and Obama have been utterly silent on that score. Politicians often talk about "morality" in foreign policy as if it were a choice between all or nothing. In fact, there is a vast middle ground between mouthing empty slogans in high-level negotiations—let alone threatening to invade—and doing nothing whatsoever. Many nations overthrow dictatorships, and many become more democratic, or at least more open, as a result. In the past, we have sometimes helped this process along. The Obama administration, if it starts now, can do so again—though it needn't start by lecturing the foreign minister of China.

Certainly, we can help by using small, even tiny, amounts of money directed at the people who promote debate, not armed rebellion, inside repressive countries. One can argue that the pennies we spent funding Radio Free Europe or anti-Communist magazines like now-defunct Encounter during the Cold War were far more effective than the billions we spent on military equipment. But although the modern equivalent, Radio Free Afghanistan, reaches more listeners in Afghanistan than any other broadcaster, we aren't increasing its funding—to the contrary, we've been slashing its budget in real terms. Nor have we yet found a creative way to promote a real discussion of radical Islam in the moderate Muslim world, as Encounter once promoted a discussion of communism among social democrats.

We can also use traditional tools of public diplomacy to greater effect. Instead of appointing cronies and fundraisers to ambassadorships, Obama could, over the next few months, appoint people with the talent to act as real spokesmen for U.S. policy—on local television, speaking the local language, writing in the local press. For that matter, Obama himself could directly address the Chinese or the North Koreans, if not on local television then on CNN and the BBC. It might indeed be pointless to bargain over human rights with the Chinese government, but public statements about democracy and human rights—of the sort Clinton herself made in Indonesia last week—will be heard, if not by all then by some. In China, a country where religious believers are harassed, all prominent visiting Americans should make a point of going to church—which Clinton did. In Russia, a country that feels ambivalent about its repressive past, all prominent visiting Americans should make a point of visiting a memorial to the victims of Stalin. Without even using the phrase human rights, many people will get the point.

Though they might not achieve much quickly, these kinds of policies are not only likely to be more effective in the long run, they are also more realistic than any of the alternatives. Decades of American friendship with the authoritarian rulers of Saudi Arabia did not prevent the emergence of al-Qaida. A cozy relationship with China's current rulers won't guarantee everlasting Asian stability, either. President Obama was right, in his inaugural address, when he addressed "those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent" and told them that they should know they are "on the wrong side of history." Now both he and his secretary of state need to enact practical policies to drive that rhetorical lesson home.

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