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Dissent and diplomacy

Author: Bill Keller
Publication: The Indian Express
Date:  May 15 2012
URL: http://www.indianexpress.com/news/dissent-and-diplomacy/949404/0

Introduction: The case of Chen Guangcheng illustrates the tention between respect for human rights and the need to deal with undemocratic regimes

The case of Chen Guangcheng illustrates the tension between respect for human rights and the need to deal with undemocratic regimes
Bill Keller

Dissidents are heroic. They speak truth to power and challenge us to be better. They put human faces on the victims of abhorrent regimes. Their stories inspire the less brave.

Dissidents are difficult. They moralise. They don’t compromise. They don’t know when to shut up. They don’t see the Big Picture. All the qualities that made them dissidents in the first place can make them irritants to American diplomats who have important business to transact with countries that don’t share our values.

The case of the blind Chinese dissident, Chen Guangcheng, which briefly wrought havoc in the US embassy, is a good occasion to contemplate the perennial tension between our respect for human rights and our need to deal with undemocratic regimes. Our relationship with China is perhaps the hardest test, as it has an atrocious human rights record but holds the keys to the deadly puzzles of North Korea and Iran, not to mention America’s mortgage.

At this writing Chen’s situation seems to be mostly resolved. It is likely that he moves to America with his family, unlikely that he returns to China anytime soon, and unknown whether reprisals will befall the outspoken friends who helped his daring escape from provincial house arrest. Despite some bobbles, the Americans handled this diplomatic grenade reasonably well. But I hope the experience has not left them feeling that dissidents are more trouble than they’re worth.

The fault line on human rights is not partisan; both Republicans and Democrats have, at times, been torn by internecine dissension over whether to speak up or intervene when freedom is tormented in faraway places. The real divide is between camps that are crudely labelled realists and idealists.

Groups like Human Rights Watch and a legion of more specialised lobbies labour to force human rights onto the official agenda. They argue that American interests are inseparable from American ideals, and that high-profile cases like Chen’s are not distractions but opportunities. Their job is to hold official feet to the fire, and they can seem as unbending as the dissidents they defend.

But the most expert of these advocates understand that America operates in the real world: that our influence over the internal abuses of other countries is limited; that it’s easier to condemn a relatively inconsequential regime than one that provides us with oil or military bases; that humiliating leaders of countries like China may strengthen the hand of hardliners; that sometimes quiet diplomacy is more effective than a public rebuke. They get all of that, but idealists believe a consistent, patient mix of pressures and incentives, public and private, can nudge an authoritarian regime in a civilised direction.

The realists, whose reigning philosopher is that master of realpolitik Henry Kissinger, counter that wrapping ourselves in human rights may play well for domestic audiences, but it impedes progress on vital issues, especially in the case of countries like China that put a premium on respect. They argue that we can more effectively influence autocracies by exposing them to our values, and by setting a good example at home. But realists, who put a premium on nuance in dealing with countries like China, can be remarkably un-nuanced on this subject.

President Obama’s record on human rights is, like that of most of his predecessors, mixed. Bill Clinton intervened to stop genocide in Bosnia, but he had to be dragged there. George W. Bush made “the freedom agenda” a signature of his administration, but America’s moral authority was compromised by the excesses of the war on terror. Obama has shown little interest in beaming his personal spotlight on prominent dissidents. And the silence on the crackdown in Bahrain is excruciating. On the other hand, Obama has stopped American agencies from using torture; he has promoted Internet freedom; he was cautious on the Arab Spring but ultimately helped ease Hosni Mubarak toward the exit in Egypt and backed the opposition in Libya.

The first thing the US did right in Chen’s case was to offer sanctuary. Given Chen’s prominence and bravery, this was an obvious call, but the Americans did not merely let him in, they smuggled him into the embassy past Chinese security, and promptly assembled a knowledgeable team to face the Chinese. It was a brazen show of what we stand for. When Chen declared his determination to stay in China, the state department negotiated a truly extraordinary deal with the Chinese, including an understanding that he would be allowed to live his life more freely. The US provided Chen with cellphones to keep in touch with supporters, and even to call in to a Congressional hearing — and in the face of American resolve, the Chinese let it all happen.

A couple of factors favoured Chen. The Chinese foreign ministry had some potent arguments in favour of playing good cop. For one thing, local authorities who flouted Chinese law could be blamed for Chen’s persecution. For another, sending Chen to America means good riddance to a defiant voice.

Kissinger’s disciples argue that we need to keep these individual dissident cases off the table, lest they lead to deadlock on weightier issues. But China also has an interest in those weightier issues. This time, they were willing to bend in order to prevent an embarrassing drama from getting in the way.The Chen case illustrates that — sometimes — if we stand firm we can have our diplomacy and our self-respect.
 
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