How to Speak Human Rights

“We pretty much know what they’re going to say.” — Hillary Clinton, on the Chinese reaction to discussions of human rights, religious freedom and Tibet

Amnesty International is “extremely disappointed,” and rightly so; Human Rights Watch’s Asia advocacy director fears that America’s human rights discussions in China will become “a dead-end ‘dialogue of the deaf,’ ” and she has a point. As for the founders of the new Chinese “Charter 08” dissident movement — the biggest political protest group in years — we don’t know what they thought, because they were all under house arrest during Clinton’s visit to Beijing. I’m sure, though, that they, too, were disappointed by our new secretary of state’s failure to discuss human rights with her hosts during her stay in China.

Yet, while I sympathize with these critics, I find I increasingly don’t care what Hillary Clinton says about human rights to the leaders of China. Neither should they: Clinton is right; these exchanges have become ritualized. I also don’t care what she says about human rights to the leaders of Iran, Zimbabwe or North Korea, if those words will have no meaning in practice. Grandiloquent human rights speeches that amount to nothing have been a hallmark of American foreign policy since at least 1956, when we didn’t come to the aid of Hungarians taking part in a rebellion we helped incite. Fifty years of broken promises is quite enough, and if we’re abandoning that habit now, good riddance.

I do, however, care quite a lot about what the new administration is going to do about human rights, on the ground, and so far, both Clinton and President Obama have been silent on that score. Politicians often talk about “morality” in foreign policy as if it were a choice between all or nothing. In fact, there is a vast middle ground between mouthing empty slogans in high-level negotiations — let alone threatening to invade — and doing nothing whatsoever. Many nations do overthrow dictatorships and become more democratic, or at least more open, as a result. In the past, we have sometimes helped this process along. The Obama administration, if it starts now, can do so again — though it needn’t start by lecturing the foreign minister of China.

Certainly, we can help by directing small, even tiny, amounts of money at the people who promote debate, not armed rebellion, inside repressive countries. One could argue that the pennies we spent funding Radio Free Europe or anti-communist magazines such as the now-defunct Encounter during the Cold War were far more effective than the billions we spent on military equipment. Although the modern equivalent, Radio Free Afghanistan, reaches more listeners in Afghanistan than any other broadcaster, we aren’t increasing its funding; to the contrary, we’ve been slashing its budget in real terms. Nor have we yet found a creative way to promote a real discussion of radical Islam in the moderate Muslim world, as Encounter once promoted a discussion of communism among social democrats.

We could also use traditional tools of public diplomacy to greater effect. Instead of appointing cronies and fundraisers to ambassadorships, Obama could, over the next few months, appoint people with the talent to act as real spokesmen for U.S. policy — on local television, speaking the local language, writing in the local press. For that matter, Obama himself could directly address the Chinese, or the North Koreans, if not on local television then on CNN and the BBC. It might indeed be pointless to bargain over human rights with the Chinese government, but public statements about democracy and human rights — of the sort Clinton herself made in Indonesia last week — would be heard by some if not by all. In China, a country where religious believers are harassed, all prominent visiting Americans should make a point of going to church — as Clinton did. In Russia, a country that is ambivalent about its repressive past, all prominent visiting Americans should make a point of visiting a memorial to the victims of Stalin. Without even using the phrase “human rights,” many people would get the point.

Though they might not achieve much quickly, these kinds of policies are not only likely to be more effective, in the long run, they are also more realistic than any of the alternatives. Decades of American friendship with the authoritarian rulers of Saudi Arabia did not prevent the emergence of al-Qaeda. A cozy relationship with China’s current rulers won’t guarantee everlasting Asian stability either. President Obama was right, in his inaugural address, when he told “those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent” that they should know they are “on the wrong side of history.” Now, he and his secretary of state need to enact practical policies to drive home that rhetorical lesson.

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