The Viking vs. the Dragon: Denmark's Stance on Human Rights in China

By Rose, Flemming | Scandinavian Review, Autumn 1997 | Go to article overview

The Viking vs. the Dragon: Denmark's Stance on Human Rights in China


Rose, Flemming, Scandinavian Review


Clash of States

Professor Samuel Huntington of Harvard is the author of one of this year's most debated books on foreign policy, Clash of

Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (Simon & Schuster, 1996). In an interview with the Danish newspaper, Berlingske Tidende, he pointed to the unfortunate fact that, in the spring of 1997, the European Union and North America could not unite their efforts behind a resolution in the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva to condemn violations of human rights in communist China.

As a result of the massacre in Tianamen Square in June 1989, the EU initiated a resolution on human rights in China with the support of the United States, Australia, and other western democracies. The UN appears to be one of the few international forums in which the West has the opportunity to speak out in favor of the ideas and principles that are the basis of western democracies: the law-based state, freedom of speech, and individual rights. In Huntington's terms, western civilization ought to speak with one voice on the international scene; and one by one, the western democracies should recognize their common roots and equal interest in consolidating themselves in the coming, unavoidable conflict with the Chinese and Muslim civilizations.

This year, France, Germany, Spain, Greece and Italy did not want to support the resolution on human rights in China. They would not risk losing business contracts worth billions of dollars just because of a resolution that did not seem to have any chance of being supported by the majority. At the same time, some of these European powers insisted that the People's Republic of China had made substantial progress in this area, a point of view incompatible with the State Department's review and numerous reports by groups closely chasing China's disastrous human rights record.

"Liberals" and "Realists"

Contrary to Huntington's concept, this case certified that it is still the nation state that is the subject of international relations and politics, and that nation states create alliances and take part in conflicts across religious and cultural borders. This episode in the Human Rights Commission in Geneva also highlighted the traditional split between "liberals" and "realists" in the debate on the place of human rights in foreign policy.

Liberals tend to believe that history is on the side of "human rights" and that the world's leading democracies, the United States and Western Europe, should push the course of history in the right direction. The liberals believe in a connection between personal and public morality. If something is wrong for the individual, then it is also wrong for the state, say the liberals.

Realists like Henry Kissinger insist that individuals and states belong to different worlds and therefore ought to be judged differently. They claim that the road to a better world is to be found in the right balance of power among states. President Clinton started out as liberal; in fact, he criticized George Bush in the 1992 campaign for turning a blind eye on China's violation of human rights. But once Clinton moved into the White House, he seemed to forget about his former strong opinions on human rights and shifted focus. He emphasized that "constructive engagement" of China and the opening of Chinese markets to the outside world were the best ways to work for democratic change. This is a policy that comfortably secures American business interests in China and, simultaneously, provides the politicians with a smooth and legitimate strategy for bringing democracy to China. The reasoning goes: When you open your markets to the outside world and people start to improve their standard of living, they sooner or later raise questions about more individual freedoms and property rights in order to establish a private domain, which is not controlled by the state.

Finally, the episode in Geneva put Denmark on the diplomatic map. …

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