Realpolitik, popularized by Henry Kissinger and exemplified by Nixon's diplomatic outreach to China and peace efforts during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, is goal oriented, strategic diplomacy defined largely on what is practical both politically and militarily and distinctly in one's interest. Ethics aren't in the equation. And it's what China has been doing for years, and why they wield the influence they now do.
By John S. Wilson
Amnesty International and other human rights groups were outraged when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on a diplomatic sweep in Asia, clarified US-China relations going forward as, “We know we’re going to press them to reconsider their position about Tibetan religious and cultural freedom and autonomy for the Tibetans and some kind of recognition or acknowledgment of the Dalai Lama and we know what they’re going to say...[b]ut our pressing on those issues can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crises.
We have to have a dialogue that leads to an understanding and cooperation on each of those.” Why Amnesty and other groups were aghast at these comments is clearly evident. Human Rights will no longer play a dominant role in trade relation talks, and this will lessen the likelihood that the US will force China's hand on the freedom of Tibetan peoples and the burgeoning struggle for independence in Taiwan. And if the message wasn't bad enough, the messenger it came from was.
Clinton has been a long-time critic of China's human rights abuses, and regarding China's one child policy has said "It is a violation of human rights when women are denied the right to plan their own families, and that includes being forced to have abortions or being sterilized against their will." When China strong-armed protesters in Tibet last year during riots, Clinton pushed for a strong US stance against China's subjugation of religious freedom. Additionally, just last summer she asked former George W. Bush to boycott the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics to further send a message. So, is it that Clinton is being a hypocrite in the name of pragmatism? Or could it be that previous unsuccessful diplomatic efforts, which were predicated on other countries making improbable concessions (e.g., China conceding ground on human rights and Taiwanese independence), have now gained way to realpolitik-style strategic function?
Some would argue that it's a little bit of both. Surely, Clinton did not just realize that diplomatic policy implementation requires not only the US compromising but sometimes having to make embarrassing concessions of it's own (e.g., scuttling lawsuits to prevent trade repercussions ). And while China is already both the largest holder of US debt and foreign holder of US currency , Clinton stated further that "Washington must incur more debt to China to boost the ailing U.S. economy and stimulate demand for Chinese products" and "it would not be in China's interest if the U.S. is unable to get its economy out of a recession".
This does not come as a surprise to those of us who have watched the Chinese purchase US debt at record amounts over the past few years. But Clinton's point goes much deeper than bonds and bucks. Realpolitik, popularized by Henry Kissinger and exemplified by Nixon's diplomatic outreach to China and peace efforts during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, is goal-oriented, strategic diplomacy defined largely on what is practical both politically and militarily and distinctly in one's interest. Ethics aren't in the equation. And it's what China has been doing for years, and why they wield the influence they now do. Name a dictatorial regime and China is there: North Korea; 14 billion dollar trading partner (arms, food and oil), Russia; recently signed a 25 billion dollar deal financed by Chinese banks and will deliver oil to China over 20 years, Sudan; holder of its largest overseas oil project and biggest benefactor of its guns, tanks, and rocket propelled grenades, all of which has accelerated the north-south civil war and underscores allegations of genocide against the Arab-led Khartoum government in Darfur, Iran; 70 billion oil deal.
The limits of China's diplomacy is strictly what the market will bear. It's as if the uglier the regime the more dollars they spend to invest in it. It's easy to see why the US has had icy relations with all of these countries. But when it comes to energy - which is to the the 21st century what gold was to the 17th, when King Ferdinand proclaimed: "Get gold, humanely if you can, but all hazards, get gold" - there are no more important players outside of Saudi Arabia and the UAE than Russia, Iran, Sudan, Venezuela and Iraq.
To be sure, Iceland and Canada provide much needed oil to the US and Iraq will be a consummate partner in the years to come, but China is concerned with the next century not decade. So must the US adopt China's version of realpolitik in order to succeed in this diplomatic environment going forward? More importantly, has the US become an idealist in thinking that our moral compass, which has uniquely set us apart from any other country since our founding, lacks the ability to steer us in the right direction in the future? That depends on the answer to the following questions: Does the US want violence in Darfur to come to a peaceful end? For the Khartoum regime to stop arming the Janjaweed rebels that have killed an estimated 2 million in Darfur? To warm relations with Russia, who has abruptly restructured oil agreements with BP in a further grab for energy control and antagonized the US over their decision to place a defense missile system in Poland? Or ensure that Iran's soon-to-be completed nuclear facility does not engage in the production of weapons-grade uranium? Unquestionably, China couldn't and frankly wouldn't guarantee all of these things. But the point Clinton was underscoring is that China's ability to influence those countries the US cannot is more valuable than the US influencing China on the issue of human rights.
And the ability of the US to prod other countries into doing the "moral thing" was always prefaced upon what those countries stood to gain or would lose by doing the wrong thing (the sticks and carrots approach , except our sticks aren't big enough and carrots aren't fresh enough). But China's been doing the latter for years, and has only seen an upside. This upside came by embracing capitalism, not morals. US investors big and small have rushed to enter the Chinese market for years, seeing the tremendous growth opportunity there. And that's underscored by the fact that we're in a global recession that some say you have to go back to the Panic of 1873 to find precedent, yet this year China's gross domestic product (GDP) is projected to grow at a pace of 7.5%, their slowest since 1990, while the US' GDP is projected to contract by 2.8%. So, in sum, the same capitalism the US has yearned for China to embrace is the same capitalism that has brought them so much influence - quite possibly at the US' expense.
~ John Wilson has written considerably in areas of public policy spanning politics, mortgage reform, immigration and gun control. He attends Virginia Commonwealth University with a triple major in economics, sociology, and women's studies. John's publishings have appeared in the Orlando Sentinel, Wiretap magazine, and cutting edge political blogs such as HipHopRepublican.com and PolicyNet. In addition, he edits and blogs at Policydiary.com and serves as a regular contributor to Black Web 2.0 where he blogs about technology start-up companies. He currently serves as a legislative fellow in the office of the Honorable David Englin (D) of the Virginia House of Delegates.