By Bill Keller –
DISSIDENTS are heroic. They speak truth to power and challenge us to be better. They put human faces on the victims of abhorrent regimes. Their stories inspire the less brave.
Dissidents are difficult. They moralize. They don’t compromise. They don’t know when to shut up. They don’t see the Big Picture. All the qualities that made them dissidents in the first place can make them irritants to American diplomats who have important business to transact with countries that don’t share our values.
The case of the blind Chinese dissidentChen Guangcheng, which briefly wrought havoc in the U.S. embassy, is a good occasion to contemplate the perennial tension between our respect for human rights and our need to deal with undemocratic regimes on issues like nuclear proliferation, trade, counterterrorism and climate change. Our relationship with China is perhaps the hardest test out there, because it has an atrocious human rights record but holds the keys to the deadly puzzles of North Korea and Iran, not to mention America’s mortgage.
At this writing Chen’s situation seems to be mostly resolved. It is likely that he moves to America with his family, unlikely that he returns to China anytime soon, and unknown whether reprisals will befall the outspoken friends who helped his daring escape from provincial house arrest. Despite some bobbles — suggesting an eagerness to get this distraction out of the way before a big bilateral meeting — the Americans handled this diplomatic grenade reasonably well. But I hope the experience has not left them feeling that dissidents are more trouble than they’re worth.
The fault line on human rights is not partisan; both Republicans and Democrats have at times been torn by internecine dissension over whether to speak up or intervene when freedom is tormented in faraway places. Candidates who talk a good game on human rights often lose their enthusiasm when they have to actually govern. The real divide is between camps that are crudely labeled realists and idealists.
Groups like Human Rights Watch and Freedom House andAmnesty International and a legion of more specialized lobbies labor passionately to force human rights onto the official agenda. They argue that American interests are inseparable from American ideals, and that high-profile cases like Chen’s are not distractions but opportunities. Their job is to hold official feet to the fire, and they can sometimes seem as unbending as the dissidents they defend.
But the most expert of these advocates understand (at least when the microphones are off) that America operates in the real world: that our influence over the internal abuses of other countries is limited; that it’s easier to condemn a relatively inconsequential regime than one that provides us with oil or military bases; that humiliating leaders of countries like China may strengthen the hand of hard-liners; that sometimes quiet diplomacy is more effective than a public rebuke. They get all of that, but idealists believe a consistent, patient mix of pressures and incentives, public and private, can nudge an authoritarian regime in a civilized direction. “At the end of the day, no one likes to be an outcast,” said Nicholas Bequelin, who covers China for Human Rights Watch.
The realists, whose reigning philosopher is that master of realpolitik Henry Kissinger, counter that wrapping ourselves in human rights may play well for domestic audiences, but it impedes progress on vital issues, especially in the case of countries like China that put a premium on respect.
“The Chinese are very focused on issues of face,” said Kenneth Lieberthal, a China expert who worked in the Clinton administration and now is based at the Brookings Institution. “It’s very hard to be effective if you are very public.”
The realists are not necessarily indifferent. They argue that we can more effectively influence autocracies by exposing them to our values, and by setting a good example at home. Fair enough. But realists, who put a premium on nuance in dealing with countries like China, can be remarkably unnuanced on this subject. In a wicked takedown of Kissinger’s 2011 book, “On China,” Andrew Nathan, a China expert at Columbia, pointed out that in arguing against the elevation of human rights Kissinger combines “three fallacies: that the universality of international human rights is a matter of opinion rather than international law, that human rights equals American principles of governance, and that promoting human rights means holding hostage progress in all other areas.”
President Obama’s record on human rights is — like that of most of his predecessors — mixed. Bill Clinton intervened to stop genocide in Bosnia, but he had to be dragged there. George W. Bush made “the freedom agenda” a signature of his administration, but America’s moral authority was seriously compromised by the excesses of the war on terror. Obama has shown little interest in beaming his personal spotlight on prominent dissidents — the Dalai Lama, to cite one conspicuous snub. He was slow to hail the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran. And the silence on the crackdown in Bahrain, which provides us both oil and a naval base, is excruciating. (“The U.S. is to Bahrain as Russia is to Syria,” one activist said, overstating an uncomfortable truth.) On the other hand, Obama has stopped American agencies from using torture; he has promoted Internet freedom; he sent special ops to pursue Joseph Kony, the crazed butcher of central Africa; he was cautious on the Arab Spring, but ultimately helped ease Mubarak toward the exit in Egypt and backed the opposition in Libya. Hillary Clinton’s speech embracing gay rights as a civilized international norm should be required listening — in North Carolina.
The first thing the U.S. did right in Chen’s case was to offer sanctuary. Given Chen’s prominence and bravery, this was an obvious call, but the Americans did not merely let him in, they smuggled him into the embassy past Chinese security, and promptly assembled a knowledgeable team to face the Chinese. It was a brazen show of what we stand for. When Chen declared his determination to stay in China, the State Department negotiated a truly extraordinary deal with the Chinese, including an understanding that he would be allowed to live his life more freely. (Whether the Chinese would have kept their side of the deal is an excellent question; we don’t know, because Chen changed his mind about staying.) The U.S. provided Chen with cellphones to keep in touch with supporters, and even to call in to a Congressional hearing — and in the face of American resolve, the Chinese let it all happen.
A couple of factors favored Chen. The Chinese Foreign Ministry, which seems to have won an internal debate with security services over his fate, had some potent arguments in favor of playing good cop. For one thing, local authorities who flouted Chinese law could be blamed for Chen’s persecution. For another, sending Chen to America means good riddance to a defiant voice. (Although in the age of social media, it’s no longer clear that exile means irrelevance. Chen’s adventure has been a phenomenon on China’s version of Twitter, including wonderful pictures of ordinary Chinese paying silent tribute to the blind lawyer by posting photos of themselves in dark glasses.)
Kissinger’s disciples argue that we need to keep these individual dissident cases off the table, lest they lead to deadlock on weightier issues. But China also has an interest in those weightier issues. This time, they were willing to bend in order to prevent an embarrassing drama from getting in the way.
Professor Nathan says when the U.S. soft-pedals human rights, it reinforces the view of many Chinese that the United States is in decline, inviting miscalculation of our seriousness. The Chen case, on the contrary, illustrates that — sometimes — if we stand firm we can have our diplomacy and our self-respect. “It is good Kissinger realism,” Nathan told me, “to show yourself to be strong in support of your own values.”