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What's Immature About Supporting Human Rights?

Part two 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? Click here for part one of the exchange.

From: Richard Just

To: Steven Clemons

Click here to read the previous entry in the conversation. 

Steve and I agree that individual athletes should go to the Olympics prepared to raise hell about China's support of Sudan and Burma as well as its internal brutality towards dissidents. Where we apparently part company is on the question of whether the U.S. government should be using the Olympics to protest China's human rights record. Steve says no; I say yes.

To be clear, I do not favor a full boycott of the Olympics. For one thing, I think it would be unfair to American athletes. For another, I think that our goal when dealing with Beijing on human rights should be to signal solidarity with the Chinese people against their repressive government, not to thumb our noses at Chinese society as a whole. That distinction is crucial, and I worry that deploying the blunt tool of a full boycott would obscure it. Sending a delegation to the Olympics--and giving our athletes, coaches, corporate executives, and celebrities a rare, high-profile opportunity to speak directly to the Chinese people from within China--seems like our best bet for conveying the human rights message we want to send.

But, while I think our athletes should go to Beijing, I also think the U.S. government should use every tool short of a full boycott to embarrass China over its human rights record, at home and abroad. In this vein, Hillary Clinton's suggestion that President Bush skip the opening ceremonies strikes me as a good idea. Alternatively, Bush could go to the Games and deliver a major speech with other western leaders designed to shame China on human rights. Or he could demand to meet with jailed dissidents. Or he could tell China that he will only attend the Games if he is allowed to speak beforehand in Tibet.

Steve's argument that the president should not be in the business of publicly shaming China over human rights during the run-up to the Olympics rests on two planks: first, that human rights should take a backseat to other issues in the relationship between China and the United States, such as nuclear proliferation and economics; and, second, that shaming China over human rights will only backfire, worsening the human rights situation rather than improving it.

The first argument ignores the clear relationship between human rights and the Olympics. However you rank our priorities in dealing with China generally, you have to acknowledge that, at this point, there is a specific connection between China's human rights policy and the Olympics. Without the Olympics, there would have been no killings in Tibet last month; there would have been no forced removals of more than one million residents to clear the way for Olympic construction; and the crackdown on dissent that is currently underway would probably not have taken place. As Josh Kurlantzick has documented (here and here), the Olympics have made China's human rights policy dramatically worse. If it is not appropriate for our government to use the Olympics to address Olympics-related human rights abuses, in what context will it ever be appropriate? Moreover, if President Bush participates in the Olympics without registering his displeasure over abuses that are a direct result of the Games, isn't he implicitly condoning them?

Of course, China's human rights problems--Sudan, Burma, internal repression--go well beyond abuses that can be tied specifically to the Olympics. These larger issues need to be addressed as well. But Steve has set up a zero-sum hierarchy of foreign policy objectives under which these concerns could very well go ignored forever. If nuclear proliferation and economic concerns are just plain more important than human rights, and if, as Steve implies, diplomatic capital spent on one objective is diplomatic capital that cannot be used on another, then no U.S. president will ever be able to justify pressuring China on any moral issue--until the day arrives when all nukes are secured and China is no longer a threat to our economy. The alternative, of course, is to recognize that sometimes you have to prioritize human rights and sometimes you have to prioritize geostrategy. And the Olympics--when the whole world will be paying attention to China--seem a logical time to prioritize human rights rather than our own interests narrowly defined.

The second plank of Steve's argument is a practical one: Pressuring China publicly on human rights, he says, simply won't work. If that's true, then how to explain the timing of China's decision last year to counsel Sudan to admit U.N. peacekeepers to Darfur? That move from Beijing came right after activists launched a campaign to link the Olympics to the Darfur genocide. Coincidence? Unlikely. Of course, those peacekeepers are proving utterly ineffective, but the point is that China has responded to public pressure surrounding the Olympics before--and might again. Seen in this light, a presidential threat to boycott the opening ceremonies is less a "dose of emotionalism" than a shrewd strategic calculation that could yield real progress on human rights issues.

The Olympics were awarded to China at a time when most observers still believed that market capitalism--and other efforts to tie Beijing to the western world--would eventually lead to political liberalism. If that were happening, I might be more sympathetic to Steve's warning that shaming China on human rights could make things worse. But China's human rights record has deteriorated since it was awarded the Games seven years ago, not improved. No one can guarantee that a policy of shaming China over human rights won't somehow backfire, but we can pretty reliably forecast that a policy of patiently waiting for the country to reform itself will backfire. How do we know? Because it already has.

Finally, a note about maturity. Steve describes Hillary's stance as "immature." I know that, in the eyes of some foreign policy thinkers, grand strategy is for the adults and human rights is for the kids--and the mark of foreign-policy maturity is the ability to coolly play the game of global chess without paying too much attention to the emotional stuff: the political prisoners and genocide victims and war refugees in faraway places. I have never understood this trope. It seems to me that a key mark of adulthood is the ability to empathize with others, and, when possible, to act on that empathy. I see no reason why we should expect our elected leaders to do anything less.

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

Click here to read the next part in the debate. 

By Steven Clemons and Richard Just