In 1981, Andrei Sakharov wrote an essay titled “The Responsibility of Scientists.” His argument was that scientists, who “form the one real worldwide community which exists today,” had a special obligation to speak out in defense of human rights. In part, his essay was directed to fellow Soviet scientists, whom he implored to take risks on behalf of principle—to “muster sufficient courage and integrity to resist the temptation and the habit of conformity.” Yet Sakharov did not let his colleagues in the free world off the hook. “Western scientists,” he wrote, “face no threat of prison or labor camp for public stands; they cannot be bribed by an offer of foreign travel to forsake such activity. But this in no way diminishes their responsibility.”
Last month, an organization filled with American scientists took Sakharov’s advice. The decision by Google to pull out of China—in protest of censorship and the hacking of Gmail accounts belonging to activists—was all the more remarkable because it was not the obvious move. Google may be a company of computer scientists, but it is also a commercial enterprise. Yet, perhaps for its own reasons, Google seems to have arrived at the same link that was obvious to Sakharov: the one between science and freedom. Science is empirical, collaborative across borders, rooted in the desire to ask questions—and therefore, at least in theory, inimical to dictatorship. In making this decision, Google appears to have drawn on its connection to the world of science as much as its connection to the world of money—and to have decided that it can no longer be a passive collaborator in the ugliness of Chinese repression.
Unfortunately, our political leaders seem incapable of making the same sort of stand. The Obama administration reacted to Google’s announcement with reserve. Disappointment was expressed; an objection to censorship was voiced; and Americans were assured both that Obama had complained to Beijing and that “[t]he U.S.-China relationship is mature enough to sustain differences.” The reaction was characteristic. It was of a piece with Hillary Clinton’s statement last year that human rights could not “interfere” with other China-related issues and Obama’s initial snubbing of the Dalai Lama.
It is not just a matter of our China policy. With each passing week, this administration appears less interested in human rights. In the run-up to Sudan’s recent election, Obama’s inept special envoy to Khartoum articulated measured confidence in the voting process—a process that almost everyone else could see was headed toward disaster. Now, in retrospect, the White House has expressed skepticism about the elections. But our envoy’s pre-election comments have already helped to legitimize the preordained winner: a brutal leader who has presided over two genocides. Meanwhile, Obama recently relayed a curious sentiment to the leader of Kazakhstan, a country that Freedom House rates “not free.” As Michael McFaul of the National Security Council was later quoted as saying, Obama told the dictator “that we, too, are working to improve our democracy.” Given all of this, it’s no wonder The New York Times recently observed that Obama appears to be “relegating issues like human rights and democracy to second-tier concerns”—or that one former government official was quoted in the same article describing the president’s approach as “almost Kissingerian.”
It is true that the consequences of this apparent indifference to human rights are far from concrete—about that much, the Kissingerian crowd is correct. Is there a single intellectual serving time in a Chinese prison who would be free if Obama were more inclined toward human rights? Perhaps not. Would Omar Al Bashir still be in power if our envoy to Sudan were more effective? Almost certainly yes. Why, then, should an American president expend precious time on human rights? It’s a fair question, but it can be answered with a nod to both history and principle. For, while it is never possible to know in advance where or when these sorts of stands will yield results, we know that sometimes, over the long run, they do lead to progress. We know that human rights language in the Helsinki Accords gave dissidents a rallying cry inside the Soviet Union. We know that international isolation exacted a price on apartheid South Africa. And we know that, even when these efforts do not work out perfectly, standing with dissidents and liberals the world over is always an honorable thing for a president—especially a liberal one—to do.
“What do I expect from people in the West who sympathize with the human rights struggle?” Sakharov asked in a 1978 essay. “It is true beyond a doubt that their help is very important.” He went on to explain his support for boycotts: “The Soviet Union and other totalitarian countries must know that the politics of defending human rights is not simply a beautiful phrase used by Western politicians, but an expression of the people’s will in Western countries.” Scientists—physicists, then; computer programmers, now—can be noble and even heroic, but they do not express the people’s will. That job belongs to the president. And he ought to start doing it.