Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


MARCH 2009

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stirred up a storm of protest during her recent trip to Asia from activist groups and some newspapers for not forcefully criticizing China's poor record on human rights.

In its lead editorial titled "Not so Obvious," the Washington Post (February 25) challenged her remarks to reporters that she was "stating the obvious" in an earlier statement playing down the importance of human rights in U.S. policy toward China.

Clinton had stated, before arriving in Beijing, that "we know what they are going to say because I've had those kinds of conversations for more than a decade with Chinese leaders." She added: "We have to continue to press them. But our pressing on these issues can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis."

To realists among U.S. foreign policy experts, Clinton did state the obvious: human rights and democracy are not as important to U.S. national interests as are vital economic and strategic considerations in dealing with China.

However, activist groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International argue that promotion of human rights and democratic government should have a top priority in U.S. relations with other countries, such as China, Russia and Saudi Arabia, that have poor records on this score.

It does not appear to be a partisan political issue. For example, both Madeleine Albright in Bill Clinton's administration, and Condoleezza Rice in George Bush's government, used their position as secretary of state to berate many foreign governments for not allowing freedom of the press, free elections, and equality for women. In fact, every president, beginning with Jimmy Carter in 1977, gave human rights a prominent place in foreign policy. But Ronald Reagan and George Bush 1 preferred to criticize Soviet and Chinese policies in private conversations with their leaders, not in public.

President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton face a serious dilemma as they chart the new administration's policy toward China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan. These governments are crucially important to the security and economic well-being of the United States, but their records on human rights and democracy fail to measure up to American and European standards.

For Mr. Obama, whose political support in the 2008 election included groups that believe promotion of human rights should be as important as economic and strategic considerations in dealing with China and Russia, Clinton's downgrading of that theme may have a political cost at home.

However, China is the largest holder of U.S. Treasury securities and one of a few countries that has sufficient reserves to increase lending to the United States during this economic crisis. Many economists thank China holds a key to Washington's ability to solve its economic crisis without suffering an even deeper recession, one that could turn into a 1930s-type depression.

Realists ask: is it prudent for the president and secretary of state to publicly berate China's leadership for its repressive policy on Tibet and jailing of political dissidents, and then ask them to continue purchasing Treasury bonds? It would be tantamount, one can argue, to asking your banker for a loan and then criticizing the way he treats his children.

Regarding Russia, its government has steadily retreated from the open society that the Russian people enjoyed ten years ago, before Vladimir Putin began clamping down on his opposition. Moscow's repressive policies need to be criticized. But when the Obama administration needs Russia's help in persuading Iran not to build nuclear weapons, and when Moscow's support is needed on Afghanistan, it makes little sense, skeptics argue, for the president to publicly chastise Russia's leaders for a poor record on human rights.

Another key country is Saudi Arabia, and the question is: how strongly should Clinton and others criticize its treatment of women while the Saudi government is the key to determining the international price of oil and the cost of gas to American motorists?

In these and other cases where countries ignore the human rights of their people, criticism can and should be made by lower ranking officials in the State Department and other government agencies, such as Voice of America. The news media also plays a large role in highlighting China's and Russia's repressive policies.

Clinton has just announced the appointment of Michael Posner to be the assistant secretary of state for "democracy, human rights, and labor." He is currently president of the New York based group, Human Rights First, and will be the department's most vocal voice on these issues.

If human rights groups could demonstrate that criticizing other governments publicly for their human rights failures leads to changed behavior toward their people, one might be more sympathetic to their campaign. But without such evidence, Hillary Clinton must deal with this reality: her first job is to defend America's vital economic and strategic interests, and leave it to others to press the promotion of human rights abroad.

File last modified on Sunday, 11-JAN-2009 5:24 PM EST

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