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Jewish World Review
Feb. 24, 2009
/ 30 Shevat 5769
Who cares what Hillary Clinton says to China's leaders about human rights?
"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.
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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Gulag: A History
Nearly 30 million prisoners passed through the Soviet Union's labor camps in their more than 60 years of operation. This remarkable volume, the first fully documented history of the gulag, describes how, largely under Stalin's watch, a regulated, centralized system of prison labor-unprecedented in scope-gradually arose out of the chaos of the Russian Revolution. Fueled by waves of capricious arrests, this prison labor came to underpin the Soviet economy. JWR's Applebaum, a former Warsaw correspondent for the Economist and a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, draws on newly accessible Soviet archives as well as scores of camp memoirs and interviews with survivors to trace the gulag's origins and expansion Sales help fund JWR.
Comment on JWR contributor Anne Applebaum's column by clicking here.
02/17/09: Witless protection
02/10/09: Our Ticket Out of Afghanistan
01/27/09:Why some foreigners can't believe Obama won the presidency fair and square
01/20/09: A Flight Test for All of Us
01/14/09: Europe's New Cold War
01/07/09: Pointless Peace Proposals
12/30/08: The magnificent rhetorical legacy of the Founding Fathers
12/23/08: Do riots in Athens portend demonstrations in Paris and Cincinnati?
12/16/08: Breach of Trust: Bernard Madoff's massive fraud will cripple American capitalism
12/09/08: In praise of charismatic politicians
12/03/08: Moscow's Empire of Dust
11/20/08: Getting Past Mythmaking In Georgia
11/12/08: In Praise of Political Rock Stars
10/03/08: Election Day myths you must resist
09/30/08: Not just a metaphor: Lehman Brothers was economic's 9/11
09/04/08: Class of '64
08/28/08: Did Hillary really help the Barack cause?
08/27/08: Show of Power, Indeed
08/19/08: What Is Russia Afraid Of?
08/13/08: When China Starved
08/11/08: Two of the world's rising powers are strutting their stuff
08/05/08: How Alexander Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago changed the world
07/29/08:The Hour of Europe Tolls Again … But are European politicians up to the task?
07/15/08: Why Does Obama Want To Campaign in Berlin?
07/01/08: Citizen Athletes: How did a guy who can't speak Polish end up scoring Poland's only goal of Euro 2008?
06/24/08: Why do we expect presidential candidates to be kind?
06/17/08: Pity the Poor Eurocrats
06/12/08: Is the World Ready for a Black American President?
05/28/08: The Busiest Generation: America seems to value its children's status and achievements over their happiness
05/20/08: Leave Hitler Out of It: The craze for injecting the Nazis into political debate must end
05/13/08: A Drastic Remedy: The case for intervention in Burma
05/07/08: A Warning Shot From Moscow?
04/23/08: Radio to stay tuned to
04/17/08: China learns the price of a few weeks of global attention
04/01/08: Head scarves are potent political symbols
03/26/08: The Olympics are the perfect place for a protest
03/19/08: Could Tibet bring down modern China?
03/12/08: Have political autobiographies made us more susceptible to fake memoirs?
03/05/08: Why does Russia bother to hold elections?
02/20/08: Kosovo is a textbook example of the law of unintended consequences
02/06/08: A Craven Canterbury Tale
02/06/08: French prez' whirlwind romance reminds voters of his political recklessness
© 2008, Anne Applebaum