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Jewish World Review June 6, 2000 / 3 Sivan, 5760

Thomas Sowell

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"Most Favored Nation" -- IF NOTHING ELSE, the recent vote in Congress to grant China permanent "most favored nation" status in international trade will spare us the annual brouhaha over this issue. The very way the issue has been posed is misleading and the end result each year has been a futile expenditure of hot air, followed by voting to grant China the same most favored nation status as many other countries.

First of all, free trade is a mutual benefit, whether it is domestic or international. International trade is neither a favor nor a contest. Like all other voluntary transactions, international trade takes place only so long as both buyer and seller want it to. As far as our most favored nation is concerned, that should be the United States of America -- which means that American consumers should be free to buy whatever they want, wherever they want, without being restricted by any of the agendas of innumerable special interest groups.

But, instead of concentrating on the millions of consumers, international trade policy is too often focused on the desires of producers, including the producers of technology that can enable China to more accurately aim nuclear missiles at American cities. It is not yet clear how many of our nuclear secrets were stolen and sent to China, but what we have sold to them is enough to qualify as one of the most reckless acts of a reckless administration.

What about the linking of international trade to human rights? The question here is not whether it makes us feel good but whether it actually accomplishes anything, as far as helping the victims of human rights abuses. What track record do trade restrictions and public scoldings have as far as improving human rights in other countries?

It makes great political theater but nobody seems to have any more rights in China afterwards than before. Nor is China the only despotic country whose despotism has not improved in the slightest as a result of our trade policy or official finger-wagging.

If this kind of political grandstanding were merely futile, it would not be nearly as bad as it is. In reality, it may make things worse. Countries with bitter memories of Western colonialism are especially likely to be defiant, as well as dismissive, when there are complaints about their behavior from Western nations.

It is one thing for writers or other media commentators to tell us the brutal facts about dictatorships such as China. They need to do more of that. But it is something entirely different for our President or our Congress to be basing official policy on anything other than our own national interests.

There are issues of life and death, such as the spread of nuclear missile technology to such terrorist states as Iran, Iraq and North Korea, on which we need the cooperation of other great power nations, some of whom can exert influence on countries where we have no influence. But our chances of getting such cooperation is not helped by American officials constantly making futile denunciations of the countries and leaders that they are then forced to turn to for help.

It is one thing to arouse the public to the military dangers to ourselves and to world peace from an aggressive China with a growing arsenal of nuclear weapons. It is something very different to remain quiet about nuclear proliferation while being noisy about other countries' internal affairs.

What is true of international trade policy is also true of diplomatic recognition. Again, the sole consideration should be the national interests of the United States. If a given regime has actual control of its territory and it is in our interests to be in communication with that regime, then diplomatic recognition should follow as a practical matter, not as a benediction.

When we try to play moralistic political games with international trade policy or diplomatic recognition, we not only fail politically, but also morally. If the issue were moral, then we should have nothing whatever to do with China, either politically or economically. But, when we only pretend that the issue is moral, and then establish diplomatic relations and grant most favored nation status, the question becomes: If China is not bad enough to be denied these statuses, then who is?

If we deny "most favored nation" status to some other regime after granting it to China, what have we accomplished, except to make ourselves look like hypocrites, thereby reducing our moral influence in the world?

JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author, most recently, of The Quest for Cosmic Justice.


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© 2000, Creators Syndicate