Chinese Checkers (United States Relations with China) (Editorial)

The Nation, April 4, 1994 | Go to article overview

Chinese Checkers (United States Relations with China) (Editorial)


The China card keeps coming up in the permanent poker game of diplomacy, and once again an American administration is wildly misplaying it. In the latest folly of China policy, the Clinton government seeks to apply a noble but narrow--and inherently hypocritical-standard of democratic behavior on Beijing before normal trade rights are renewed in June. Secretary of State Christopher's approach to the Chinese leaders has been hectoring, and naturally Beijing is resistant. Because the diplomatic interchanges are conducted on a public stage and played to the global media, posturing takes precedence over substantive bargaining. Clinton & Co. are perilously close to losing all their cards without accomplishing any of their objectives.

Human rights make a problematic foundation for the construction of foreign policy. However virtuous the effort, there are too many differences of definition, opportunities for dishonesty and occasions for self-delusion. It was only a few years ago that American governments even thought to make the attempt. Jimmy Carter elevated human rights to a prominent place in the conduct of international relations, but from the start his theory was contradicted by the practices of his National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who insisted on making exceptions. Iran, Indonesia, South Korea and the other "Brzezinski countries"--those subimperial outposts assigned the task of insuring stability in their regions--were allowed to repress their citizens at will, while foreign governments more at odds with the United States were penalized.

The use of human rights as just another card in the power play of foreign policy was perfected in the Reagan/Bush years. Democracy was defined as militant anticommunism, allowing Reagan to wage counterrevolutionary wars around the world. Struggles for economic equality and social justice were not considered worthy of the Reagan crusade.

Clinton had an opportunity to extend what Carter had tentatively begun, but in his discussion of foreign policy he preferred to concentrate on the uses of diplomacy to promote American economic "competitiveness" rather than human rights. China policy thus presented a conspicuous contradiction. …

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