by John R. Miller
The brouhaha over Secretary of State Clinton's comments on human rights in China has subsided but the question of what an American leader should say publicly on such subjects remains and, unless thought through, will bedevil Secretary Clinton and President Obama whenever they visit any nation with an abysmal human rights record.
The Secretary's actual statement was less remarkable than that she made it publicly and in Beijing: "...our pressing on those issues [human rights] can't interfere with the global economic crises, the global climate change crises and the security crises."
Negotiating with foreign governments on multiple issues is hardly shocking; what shocked human rights groups and pleased the Chinese government was that Clinton publicly sent a signal that human rights might not be a high priority in Chinese-American relations--a reverse of the signal that all, including Chinese citizens and their government, expected. The Secretary's later assurance that she had raised human rights issues with Chinese leaders in private meetings did not mollify her critics who professed "dismay" and "disappointment" that the previous loquacious Senator was now the reticent Secretary of State.
Now, few would question the bona fides of Secretary Clinton on human rights. As a U.S. Ambassador involved in international human rights, I found then Senator Clinton to be extremely knowledgeable and concerned about such issues, and particularly so with regard to China. But in the wake of her visit to China, Secretary Clinton should reflect less on the particular words she uttered and more on the broader challenge that has faced Presidents, Secretaries of State and American diplomats for decades: in future visits to authoritarian countries, does she both speak out publicly and engage privately with foreign leaders on international human rights issues; does she only engage privately on such issues; or does she do nothing at all?
The do nothing option, while it makes for pleasant meetings with foreign leaders, is not possible for an American Secretary of state, because of both American and foreign expectations. This nation has a long tradition of involvement in human rights issues abroad during both our internationalist and isolationist phases (although the extent of our involvement has obviously varied). This rests on a trait in the American character aptly illustrated by Norbert Vollartsen, the German human rights activist. Vollartsen says that when he describes human rights atrocities in China and North Korea to European audiences, the reaction is "so what?" When he describes the same situation to American audiences, the response is "what can we do to help?" He believes this is a uniquely American characteristic and it is nothing to be ashamed of. It derives from both our past when immigrants fled here to avoid genocide or political or religious persecution, and our defining prediliction for solving problems.
Moreover, as an American diplomat I found, perhaps surprisingly, that not only Americans but citizens, victims, NGOs and even most leaders abroad expect us to raise human rights issues. While sometimes annoyed, they realize that our character calls on us to do so; that international organizations which rely on consensus shy away from such issues; and that if the U.S. does not raise the banner of human rights, often no one else will.
This still leaves the choice of whether the human rights issue should be raised by the Secretary both publicly and privately-- or just privately. Of course raising the issue publicly can make the meetings with foreign leaders that follow not only less pleasant but sometimes frigid--the Chinese leaders were undoubtedly more ingratiating to Secretary Clinton than they were to Speaker Pelosi and me years ago on a Congressional visit to China when prior to a meeting with the Chinese foreign minister we raised the issue of Tiananmen Square with the news media. Agreeable meetings, however, are not the purpose of effective diplomacy. We must remember that public statements on human rights have three key audiences.
The first audience, if we want improvements, are the foreign leaders themselves. It may surprise some, but public statements by American officials on human rights do not always produce a backlash. To the contrary, in my experience such statements often bring attention and positive changes. True, the foreign leaders may feel forced to answer the criticism publicly by denying the problem or complaining about American "meddling". But often this is followed by action. I found that with human trafficking, our public reports and my public statements delivered in the host country accompanied by private sessions might produce resentment but also produced results. And this was not just the case with friendly governments such as Turkey and Bangladesh; even governments such as China and Venezuela, while protesting, did not want to be "shamed" and spent hours lobbying me on the good things they were doing or promised to do in order to win American human rights plaudits--or at least less scathing criticism.
The second audience is the victims of human rights abuses. This audience takes heart from our public utterances and are inspired to continue the struggle. Once in Mumbai's red light district several victims and their NGO advocates accosted me with praise for a speech President Bush gave to the UN General Assembly. The President devoted twenty per cent of a speech little noted in the U.S. to modern slavery. Waving copies they had printed off the internet, one victim exclaimed "Your President first world leader to speak out on slavery. Now he must speak out on slavery in India". Unfortunately President Bush on his visit to india did not do so, but if he had, it would have inspired hundreds of thousands of sex and bonded labor slaves.
The third audience for public statements by American leaders abroad on human rights--and the one most oftern ignored-- is the American public. Public pussyfooting may temporarily play well with the Chinese and other authoritarian leaders, but it won't play well in the United States. Americans do not want to be condescended to, and expect American leaders to say the same things abroad as they same as home. (This is another character trait that we need not be ashamed of.) Yes, our diplomats must remember that they represent the United States to foreign countries and not just the reverse. Besides, such statements are critical to maintaining support for American human rights initiatives and encouraging private and non-profit initiatives. American and foreign NGOs may not want to be agents of the U.S. government but they often do want to further American human rights ideals.
It may be argued that private engagement by itself also brings results but the examples I know of ranging from South African apartheid to Secretary of State Schultz's interventions for individual "refuseniks" and Pentecostals were all complemented by supporting public statements.
The challenge that Secretary Clinton faced in Beijing, she will face again in different times and places. It does no good for either relations with a foreign government or the cause of human rights to speak one way in private and another way--or not at all--in public. Candor will serve both the cause of human rights and bilateral relations better than conduct which on the part of the United States is perceived as out of character. In the long term it is better to make one's statements in public and private consistent; when it comes to human rights, not only do Americans expect that of our leaders but so does the rest of the world.
(John R. Miller served as United States Ambassador at Large on Modern Slavery and as a Congressman on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He is presently a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute.)