The U.S. Cannot Confront China on Every Move it Disagrees With

Republicans criticizing Obama for not being tougher on China's human-rights abuses are delusional about today's global power dynamic.


The saga of Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng has become the latest source of tension between China and the United States. And the way that story has entered domestic American politics sheds disturbing light on how in denial the United States remains about the state of the world in the early 21st century.

Since at least the time of Woodrow Wilson, the United States has approached the world with a particular moral framework. Of course, you can find strains of morality well before that, but the modern lens owes much to an early-20th-century spirit that saw Americans championing the rights of individuals to freedom of expression, religion, and democracy, as well as the right of nations to be free from the threat of invasion by rapacious competitors. Americans frequently violated those principles in practice, but they remained woven into the tapestry of American foreign policy.

For every realist like Henry Kissinger who treated human rights as secondary to maintaining the international order, there was a Jimmy Carter who placed human rights at the center of his foreign policy agenda. Historians will note, correctly, that the actual differences in foreign policy were less sharp than the rhetorical ones, but at no point could an administration abjure concern for human rights altogether.

In the second half of the 20th century, American foreign policy unfolded in the context of overwhelming power and competition with the Soviet Union. The Soviets, with their gulags and political prisoners, were seen as human-rights violators par excellence. While America could do little to ease the plight of Soviet dissenters, it could present itself as a beacon of hope and freedom compared to the harsh authoritarianism of the Soviets. As for the Chinese under Mao and the Cultural Revolution, that regime was seen as even more beyond the pale, but was less a focus of American policy. In both cases, there was little in the way of trade or economic links. There was only rivalry and the threat of war. A firm commitment to human rights was part of a global struggle, carried few costs, and allowed the United States to stand on the side of angels.

In dealing with countries outside the Eastern Bloc, the U.S. could employ varying degrees of pressure to coerce change, whether through economic sanctions or armed intervention. While America used those tools erratically, no one interacting with the United States was insensitive to the possibility. That, too, was a source of American influence. The final element was the United Nations and a general acceptance of the principles of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which established a global human-rights framework that most nations—at least in theory—accepted, and which few nations in practice actually followed.

This context shapes the current crisis over Chen Guangcheng. The response of the Obama administration has been widely assailed as “weak” and “coddling” of a “Chinese dictatorship.” Candidate Mitt Romney, who has already taken a hard line on China over economics, decried Obama for caving, and House Republicans, who added a strong Christian note, joined the chorus. These critiques, however, speak to a sense of America that is at odds with its actual standing in the world.

First, the U.S. does not have the power to coerce China, absent measures that would also do severe damage to the American economy. Yes, there could be actions taken by the Chinese government that would be sufficiently offensive to human rights that could and should make the U.S. decide to disengage economically and attempt to punish the Chinese government. It could do what has been done to the regime in Myanmar, except in the case of China the costs to the United States would be massive economic dislocation. But just as there is a time for war when all else fails, there could be a time for such a response.

Absent that, however, the United States approaches China as an equal, and that means that coercion is not really an option. That needn't signal American weakness, anymore than it signals Canadian weakness if the Chinese government takes actions that violate Canadian norms and morals. The real world is one in which various sovereigns do things that other sovereigns find morally objectionable, and often can do nothing about other than voice strong objections. That was certainly the case for the United States after Abu Ghraib, and it's still the case for the large-scale incarceration of African-Americans in America today. Other countries may find those actions morally reprehensible, but they deal with the United States nonetheless. So, too, does America deal with regimes that it finds lacking on human rights: Brazil and Argentina in the 1970s, and many African nations in the 1990s and 2000s.

Casting American responses to the fate of Chinese activists seeking radical changes in their government as a mark of American weakness says more about American delusions of power than about actual weakness. Unless strength is the ability to force everyone everywhere to behave as you see fit, we must simultaneously object to what we believe to be wrong and engage those who we think are behaving wrongly. Yes, there are regimes beyond any conceivable pale—the Khmer in Cambodia in the 1970s being perhaps the best example. But most countries exist in grayer zones. A reforming Indonesia that nonetheless was ruthless in Aceh, for instance. Those we tend to engage, because there are few real alternatives. We don’t choose the governments of the world, just as they didn’t choose the United States as global military hegemon.

The strongest stance, of course, comes from a rigorous application of universal values at home. It comes from practicing consistently and forcefully whatever we preach. Guantanamo was such a liability because it made it almost impossible to argue against regimes that used torture, denied habeas corpus, or conducted trials in secret. They could always return the critique. The United States has moved away from those excesses, but drone attacks in foreign countries don’t help our case, however justifiable those are from the perspective of national security.

The Chen situation is being resolved about as well as it could be, with neither the U.S. nor China particularly pleased about it but with the relationship maintained. That is all for the best, given how central that relationship is to our mutual prosperity and security, and without those, there can be no viable framework for human rights. There are no easy answers here, but the knee-jerk framework of pride, strength, and weakness does nothing to advance human rights. It reveals the United States as a nation wedded to power rather than a nation wedded to being powerful. Unless we let go our desire for the former, we will surely forfeit our claim to the latter.