Part one 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, how should fans, Olympic athletes, presidential candidates, and the U.S. government itself respond to the games?

From: Steven Clemons
To: Richard Just

Hillary Clinton recently called on George W. Bush to boycott the Beijing Olympic opening ceremonies, and I think she’s showing a strategic blind spot that is worrisome.

To add a bit of context, last October, The New Republic’s editors ran a thought-provoking editorial, “Gold Meddle,” that struggled with the moral dilemma of sending America’s Olympians to compete in a country that still jailed and abused those who violated China’s low tolerance for free expression. The human face of the editorial was Yang Chunlin, a land-rights activist who raised questions inside China about his country’s decision to host the Olympics. TNR’s editors flirted with the notion of a full boycott but ultimately settled on encouraging athletes burdened with unavoidable political responsibilities to “speak up” and protest in some personal way. 

Addressing the internal dynamics of an ascending illiberal economic juggernaut is one of many complex challenges facing the U.S. and the West. But it’s vital to remember that there are a few dozen (and more) other major complex challenges facing the U.S. at the same time.

In recent years, voices as diverse as Richard Perle, Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, and now Hillary Clinton have all called for either a boycott or some other staged insult to China to prod it to free Tibet (or at least stop crushing Tibet’s autonomy movement), or to pull back the economic lifeline to Burma’s military junta, or to use its influence on Sudan to preempt further genocidal trends in Darfur. Perle, for instance, wanted to keep Beijing from landing the Olympics bid as punishment for crashing a jet into an American spy plane in April 2001 and then holding the crew.

I’m as moved as anyone by the story of Yang Chunlin being chained for days to his bed for questioning authority. I believe that concerned observers of political abuse should do what their conscience dictates by way of civil protest. Olympians themselves might skip the opening ceremonies. They might wear their t-shirts flipped around. Or they could walk through the stadium backwards rather than forwards. Or broadcast their views to media urging China to stop harassing political dissidents and perhaps don “Free Tibet” banners and wear black Darfur action armbands.

There are lots of things that can be done by individuals and NGOs who believe that China should be snubbed or nudged on human rights. But where Hillary Clinton is wrong-headed is in her willingness to apply the presidency’s weight to these problems in a trivial, shallow, and counter-productive way. 

When viewed from the Oval Office, the world is comprised of many contending potential national security nightmares--and one set of objectives, such as getting Yang Chunlin-type victims released from their plight--needs to be weighed against other concerns.

That is the burden of the presidency. Hillary Clinton has sadly indicated a willingness to throw the weight of the White House into a public relations stunt that will neither end China’s tight-fisted control of Tibet nor achieve constructive action on Darfur.

In fact, such tactics could very well backfire. To embarrass China at the moment that hosting the Olympics punctuates its rise as a major global player could trigger a serious nationalist reaction and harden China’s resistance on Tibet and Sudan.

Hillary Clinton--or any president--needs to avoid the temptation to pander to the American public when crises with key global powers emerge. A president needs to demonstrate an awareness of our core interests with China and a strategy for getting what we most want from the Asian power in the arena of international affairs.

Nukes should be at the top of that list, and then there should be a cascading set of second, third, and fourth priorities. A new or revised economic arrangement would be second on my list, and then perhaps a serious commitment to climate change in third or fourth place. Human rights should be on the list, but the pursuit of Chinese subscription to a higher human rights bar should be a serious effort characterized by consultations, encouragement, and deal-making that involves incentives and, yes, disincentives. But Clinton gave no sense of a fuller, serious game plan on the human rights front.

Which battles with China do we need to stalemate on, delay, or even lose to achieve our primary national security and geopolitical objectives? And more importantly, what battles does China really need to win to be able to work with us?

What Hillary Clinton offered showed a troubling absence of strategic thinking as well as a dose of emotionalism and wrong-headed priorities that helped trip America into a number of its current international problems. I hope Clinton reconsiders her position.

This kind of posturing makes America look immature--as if it has lost touch with the realities of statecraft and with its own important role as a global stabilizer.

Click here to read the next part in the debate.

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.