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Clinton Has Strategic Blind Spot On China

April 17, 2008 |
Clinton's plan may very well backfire and stoke the embers of virulent, strident nationalism rather than encourage China to keep moving toward to its goal as a responsible gloabl stakeholder.
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A similar version of this article also appears on The New Republic, which features a debate between Steven Clemons and Richard Just, TNR's deputy editor, on the appropriate response to the Beijing Olympics.

China's Olympics are an enticing target for "cause crusaders" who want to taunt the regime with public relations stunts while the global spotlight and attention of billions are watching every countermove China's leaders make. The "norms" of any state are not really evident unless observed after that state responds to shocks. Cause crusaders are doing their best to exploit the moment to throw China off balance and to hopefully compel China's ruling order to exhibit what they argue is a lurking monstrousness.

Lots of leading Americans are in the game, too. Former Reagan administration Defense Department official and top-tier neoconservative ideologue Richard Perle -- dubbed former President Ronald Reagan's "prince of darkness" -- wanted to quash China's bid to host the Olympic games in April 2001 after a U.S. EP-3 spy plane collided with a Chinese military jet. More recently, Washington Post editorial page Editor Fred Hiatt called for U.S. Olympians to skip the games in order to signal to the Chinese government displeasure with its continued support of the antidemocratic military junta in Myanmar.

And now Democratic presidential contender Sen. Hillary Clinton has prodded U.S. President George W. Bush to skip the Beijing games' opening ceremonies. The grievances she wants to punish China for are the crackdown on Tibetan independence activists and the failure to use its influence on Sudan to change disturbing trends in Darfur. Fellow Democratic contender Sen. Barack Obama took to fence-sitting and said he is "of two minds" on Bush attending the ceremonies.

Agitating for an end to the human misery in Darfur, for a higher human rights bar in Chinese prisons and the suspension of the military crackdown in Tibet are legitimate causes for citizens and global civil society institutions to protest and raise awareness about. If Olympians want to adopt any of these causes as their own, perhaps they can do something like walking backward through the ceremonies, or wear armbands color-coded to empathize with whatever cause to which they want to subscribe.

But a presidential boycott of the ceremonies cheapens the presidency and sends the wrong signals to the U.S. and global public about the complex responsibilities of the White House in global affairs. Clinton is calling for a shallow, binary act from Bush: To go or not to go to the game ceremonies.

Instead, Clinton should be discussing how her concerns about Tibet and China's potential influence over Sudan fit into the fabric of the United States' interests on many other fronts. And if these issues Clinton is agitating for rank highly, then offer a strategy to actually achieve results.

Without a strategic game plan that includes comprehensive global comment, encouragement, negotiation and perhaps some disincentives -- which could involve costs for the United States as well as China -- then Clinton's proposal is unilateral, knee-jerk foreign policy on the cheap -- a stunt designed to embarrass China at a point of significant national pride. Clinton's plan may very well backfire and stoke the embers of virulent, strident nationalism rather than encourage China to stay focused on the goal it mostly has been moving toward -- a goal former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State and World Bank President Robert Zoellick coined the "responsible global stakeholder."

When sitting behind the desk in the Oval Office, a rational, thoughtful president of the United States will simultaneously see many contending potential national security nightmares. Moving on any one objective should compel the president to weigh the impact on other vital interests and objectives. That is the burden and unique responsibility of the presidency.

Clinton's disappointing willingness to throw the weight of the White House into a public relations stunt that will neither end China's tight-fisted control of Tibet nor achieve constructive action on Darfur may appeal to wistful idealists in the Democratic primary race but may raise the cost of China's working with the United States on fronts where we really need Chinese collaboration.

Clinton or any president needs to avoid the temptation to pander to the American public when crises with the key global powers emerge. A president needs to articulate and demonstrate an awareness of our core interests with China and what we most want from the Asian power in the arena of international affairs.

Stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons and materials should be at the top of that list, and then there should be a cascading set of second and third and fourth priorities with a state like China. A new or revised economic arrangement would be second on my list, and then perhaps a serious commitment to climate changes in third or fourth place. Human rights should be on the list, but make the pursuit of Chinese subscription to a higher human rights bar a serious effort characterized by consultations, encouragement and deal-making that involves incentives and yes, disincentives. But Clinton gave no sense of a fuller, serious game plan on the human rights front.

Which battles with China do we need to stalemate on, or delay, or even lose to achieve our primary national security and geopolitical objectives? And more importantly, what battles does China really need to win to be able to work with us?

On the U.S. front for instance, the United States has a high priority in getting to an end game with Iran and North Korea that preempts further erosion of the nuclear nonproliferation regime without a war. This is absolutely impossible without China's strong support.

But what Clinton has offered by proposing stunts instead of a game plan showed a troubling absence of strategic thinking as well as the kind of emotionalism and wrong-headed priorities that helped trip Bush into the quagmire the United States is in today in Iraq.

This kind of posturing makes the United States look immature -- as if it has lost touch with the realities of statecraft and with its own important role as a global stabilizer.

Some have suggested that Clinton is the Bush-lite in this presidential contest. That is a bad course for her campaign and the country. Clinton needs to look back to the eulogy her husband, then President Bill Clinton, gave at former President Richard Nixon's funeral in 1994 and consider a new formulation of national interest-inspired foreign policy.

Surprisingly, at a time when U.S. foreign policy choices will weigh heavily in November's election, there currently is no Nixon-lite in the contest. Clinton could give her campaign a boost and take the country on a healthier national security direction if she retooled toward Nixon's foreign policy example and became the Nixonian candidate in the race.

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