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We Have to Clean Up Bush's Messes Before We Can Focus on China

Part three of a TNR Debate on the Beijing Olympics.

In this TNR debate, Steven Clemons of the New America Foundation and New Republic deputy editor Richard Just discuss the appropriate response to the Beijing Olympics. In light of China's manifold human rights problems, what is the right response from fans, Olympic athletes, presidential candidates, and the U.S. government itself? For the first part of the exchange, click here, and for the second part, click here.

Click here to read the previous entry in the conversation.

From: Steven Clemons
To: Richard Just

Richard reads me pretty well. I don’t believe that the U.S. government should throw its weight behind an Olympics-tethered human rights rebuke of China--not because I feel that advocating for human rights is wrong, but because the approach Hillary Clinton is advocating will be ineffective and counter-productive.

To begin this second round, I’ll start where Richard finished. He seems to imply that national security strategists, consumed with unsentimental cost-benefit trade-offs, don’t respect the personal or human dimensions of international conflict. He bristles at my deeming Hillary Clinton’s campaign to nudge George W. Bush not to attend the Olympic opening ceremonies “immature.” I’ll stand my ground on this one.

I began this exchange by highlighting the human face of a Chinese land-rights protestor chained for days on end to a bed frame that TNR wrote about in an Olympics-related editorial last October. I do empathize with Yang Chunlin, just as I do with thousands of other thought-control prisoners in China. I empathize with victims of China’s Internet snooping, whose case files and incarceration some U.S. firms aided and abetted. I can’t speak for the vast profession of national security strategists, but in my own case, I always try to keep in mind the human face of the trade-offs involved in serious statecraft.

That’s why I’m somewhat perplexed by the low bar Richard and other China-focused human rights activists have set in this debate over the Olympics. Richard is right in saying that, at this particular point in American history, I believe that the United States’ eroded national security position due to the missteps of the Bush administration leaves the country with no higher priorities than a focus on the systemic challenges of today. Those challenges are nukes, the stability of the global economy, a potential transnational meltdown in the Middle East, and climate change.

Human rights is trumped as an issue in this day and at this moment because America has so mismanaged its national security portfolio in other areas. This has not always been the case--and will not always be either. When there was relative stability in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, America failed to use its economic leverage and geopolitical position to push the human rights agenda further forward among competing priorities. Bill Clinton’s first national security advisor, Anthony Lake, gave it a good try--but the reality is that Clinton’s template for a post-Cold War foreign policy strategy was to do whatever was best for the multinational corporation.

Not only do we not have the environment of the 1990s, in which a higher priority for the Yang Chunlin’s of the world would have been eminently achievable, we have now seen America--the so-called beacon on the hill--preside over some of the most outrageous human rights violations in our entire history in Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and Guantanamo. Our protests about human rights violations in China--particularly by our citizens--are worthy and can be inspiring, but our government’s own hand in the promulgation of abuse and the failure to hold senior officials accountable makes any gesture toward China even more hollow than it would otherwise be.

I would find Hillary Clinton’s call for what accounts for not much more than a public-relations stunt “less immature” if she had helped generate a coordinated action among other heads of state regarding the ceremonies. I would have found her position more acceptable had she acknowledged during her criticism that China has been moving at breakneck speed to lift hundreds of millions within its nation out of poverty--at one level a clear improvement in the “human condition” of vast numbers. I could have been less opposed to her call to Bush if she had acknowledged China’s important collaboration with the United States in the Six Party Talks in trying to direct North Korea and its nuclear weapons away from Armageddon scenarios just off Japan’s coast. She would have impressed me had she outlined the common interests that China and the United States have on climate change, managing the clear dysfunction in the global economy, and managing the Iran problem.

But Clinton gave zero context. She spoke just of human rights and suggested a unilateral, uncoordinated stunt that seems designed more to humiliate than to achieve anything. Please tell me--actually, show me--that human rights advocacy is about results and not grandstanding.

When I was recently in China for a McKinsey-sponsored conference called the China-U.S. Partnership Forum, I traveled there with General Wesley Clark. Clark was impressive through the meeting and actually knows quite a lot about China. China’s human rights habits today are roughly the same as they were in November--and yet, I heard no mention from him at the meeting about China’s human rights portfolio.

I do concur that China’s human rights policies have worsened since 2001, but Richard and I would need to do another exchange to weigh how damaging Bush’s “you’re with us or against us” campaign was when it lined up allies in the misnamed “war on terror” who then used the excuse of counter-insurgency to attack domestic enemies.

What was interesting during this McKinsey meeting was that a number of well-decorated People's Liberation Army generals dropped in to see Wes Clark during our conference--telling him that they feared that Taiwan would try to exploit the time when the global spotlight was on China to declare an “independence track.” The generals were wrong about Taiwan -- but not about the general concept. Tibetan protestors clearly followed the track China’s leaders predicted.

So, Richard is correct that the Olympics have triggered protests, and perhaps he is also correct that, in anticipation of trouble, China instituted a preemptive crackdown. The District of Columbia police did the same around the time of the World Bank/IMF spring meetings a few years ago. Is this bad and does it deserve condemnation? Yes. But do the human rights challenges faced by the citizens of China represent today a systemic assault on the global system? My answer--for the unique period of time we are in--is no.

I won’t rehash my earlier points, but I will say that what I find missing in Richard’s calculus that the human rights agenda should trump other concerns at the moment is a concern for those other matters. Do human rights activists have any sense about the national security downsides of stoking virulent, anti-Western nationalism in a place like China? Are they willing to shoulder the blame for breakdowns in nuclear talks and a collapse of collective security arrangements in places where we really need China because of the thrill of getting a president to humiliate a billion people at one of their most proud moments?

Richard thinks it is possible to reach beyond China’s repressive regime and establish common cause and connection with the Chinese public. This may be true, though I doubt that if such a serious effort were made to reach into the DNA of Chinese society that we would find much about our government--which Richard wants to throw into this debate--that they would appreciate. I also think that militant human rights activists tend to look for opportunities like the Olympic ceremonies to push a cause and get press attention, and don’t think enough about how actually to gain substantive progress on the ground. I’m in the camp that thinks China’s leadership can be encouraged down the road of responsible stakeholding in global affairs--and be encouraged, mostly because of its own internal need to do so, to deal with the outrages in its long roster of political prisoners.

Richard and I agree that our publics, our athletes, our NGOs, and the like should follow their conscience in lodging whatever protest they believe they need to--or not. But the President of the United States must weigh many other factors in our bilateral relationship with China. And given the realities of America’s weakened military and economic condition and its very clear dependence on China in a number of fronts--we need to achieve a stronger position in global affairs and confront collaboratively with China some serious systemic threats.

Boycotting the Olympic opening ceremonies will do nothing more than humiliate. Other nations will see us yet again choosing a PR stunt rather than serious results-oriented strategy. China’s leaders and China’s public will be offended, stoking resistance against American calls for cooperation on nukes, climate change, and currencies. And in the end, all of our costs on all other issues related to China will rise.

If human rights advocates could pursue their ends more strategically--and in a way that ensured that America’s portfolio of power was sustained to fight another and another and another day, rather than gambled away on trivial posturing--then I might sign up, but not until then.

Steven Clemons is Director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation and publisher of The Washington Note. Richard Just is deputy editor of The New Republic.