Now that the Cold War is over, America has lost its excuse for befriending repressive regimes simply because they are anti-Soviet. Accordingly, human rights have become a paramount concern in foreign policy.
It is commonly thought that the best way to encourage human rights is to withhold trade privileges from the offending parties.
Certainly Congress thinks so, and, until recently, so did President Bill Clinton. But face to face with reality, he isn't so sure.
In respect to China in particular, the president is beginning to regret he vowed last year to withdraw its Most Favored Nation status this June unless the Chinese make major progress on human rights.
China is unlikely to meet U.S. demands. The probable result, as most in Congress will tell you: cancellation of China's MFN status and a virtual halt to Sino-U.S. trade.
While this would make an important symbolic point and seriously harm the Chinese economy, the damage to our economy would be great as well. China plans to spend more than half a trillion dollars in the next five years on infrastructure alone. If America captures just a fraction of this business, it will be worth hundreds of thousands of jobs here.
So one casualty of a tough line on human rights would be the U.S. worker. Another would be Americans of modest incomes who could no longer purchase major quantities of low-priced Chinese goods.
A third cost: the loss of the Chinese market to Europe and Japan, which have no intention of relating trade to human rights.
Does this mean the world's most idealistic democracy must give up on human rights? Is financial self-interest more important than striving to make the rest of the world approach our standards of political decency?
Cynics would say yes. Human rights advocates would insist the answer must be never. Both are wrong.
The issue is one of patience and strategy - not affirming or abandoning the cause of human rights.
If our primary concern is with clean hands - having nothing to do with governments whose policies are morally repugnant to us - human rights standards must be stringently applied, regardless of the cost.
This is true even if refusing trade with retrograde governments does not, in fact, promote improved behavior on their part.
But human rights from this perspective is much more about us than it is about them.
If America truly wishes to promote human rights - and is prepared to get its hands dirty in doing so - the best course is not to prohibit trade, but to promote it.
The link between trade and prosperity needs no explanation. …