[Overseas view]Human rights and diplomacyGeorge W. Bush’s final visit to Asia as president reaffirmed the United States’ enduring economic and security interests in this dynamic region. It also allowed the White House to remind Americans back home that the United States continues to have strong relations in Asia, despite the steady drubbing of America’s image in Europe and the Middle East.
Many observers were surprised that the president appeared to suddenly raise human rights issues immediately before and during his visit. Left-wing newspapers and blogs warned that the president’s tougher tone on human rights would mar his visit to Thailand and China and interrupt diplomatic progress with North Korea.
From my perspective, the more interesting issue is why the Bush administration let people in Asia and at home think that he and the U.S. government had ever lost the commitment to human rights in the first place.
Herein lies a cautionary tale for the next U.S. administration and strategists in Korea: An effective human rights policy requires a steady and constant commitment and must never be seen as a policy fit only for diplomatically convenient moments in history.
After almost five years in the White House, I personally have no doubt about the president’s deep personal commitment to human rights issues. He was outraged that the North Korean peoples’ suffering received so little attention from the international community and often from the South Korean government itself. The president made it a point to meet with dissidents and champions of freedom, like Charm Tong from Burma or Kang Chol-hwan, the author of “The Aquariums of Pyongyang.” He organized his second term around the “freedom agenda” articulated in his 2005 inaugural speech, in which he challenged the world to end tyranny within a generation.
But he was pragmatic and evolutionary in implementing human rights policies in Asia. He never advocated a regime change strategy in North Korea (despite numerous erroneous stories that he did), and he supported North?South reconciliation as long as the process did not worsen the human rights and nuclear weapons abuses of the North. In fact, he spent hours with former President Kim Dae-jung in 2002 listening carefully to the South Korean strategy for engaging the North. He pressed Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao of China to improve human rights and religious freedom, but tried to explain why these steps were necessary to help China sustain its economic growth and become a stronger society and nation.
One thing he did not do was back away from human rights.
In the year before the president’s visit to Asia, many observers in the human rights community in the United States complained that the administration was, in fact, backing away from human rights issues in Asia. The Burmese junta did come under relentless pressure from the United States after the generals’ unforgivable crackdown against peacefully protesting monks in August 2007 and the junta’s callous disregard for the suffering of its citizens in the wake of Cyclone Nargis in May.
But over that same period, the rhetoric and action on human rights issues elsewhere in Asia seemed to grow quieter.
The shift in U.S. policy towards North Korea and the intensity of diplomatic engagement on nuclear issues with Pyongyang was paralleled by softened language on North Korea in the annual State Department human rights report, then a decision not to push human rights in efforts to materialize a Northeast Asia Peace and Security Forum, and finally, in an embarrassing public row between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and North Korean human rights envoy Jay Lefkowitz about North Korea policy.
It was this apparent retreat on human rights that prompted Senator Sam Brownback to put a hold on the nomination of Kathleen Stephens to be ambassador to South Korea.
With China there also appeared to be a softening of the U.S. position on human rights. Although the president never failed to raise the issue with his Chinese counterparts, U.S. China policy became dominated by two other narratives: the U.S.-China strategic economic dialogue, led by Secretary of Treasury Henry Paulson and, of course, the six party talks.
Intended or not, the public impression was created in the United States and China that the economic relationship and North Korea now took prominence over other issues in U.S.?China relations.
It was precisely the broad impression that the Bush administration had downgraded the importance of human rights in Asia that created such surprise when the president met with high-profile Chinese dissidents in the White House immediately before his departure. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman revealed Beijing’s shock when he criticized the United States for “rudely intervening in the internal affairs of other states.”
When President Bush and President Lee Myung-bak reconfirmed the importance of human rights in approaching North Korea, the reaction from Pyongyang and the left-wing newspapers and blogs in the South was fierce.
At the end of the day, the North Koreans’ decision about whether to comply with the verification requirements for denuclearization will not be determined by U.S. or South Korean statements on human rights, though Pyongyang may use it as an excuse to keep its nuclear weapons programs hidden.
Nor will President Bush’s statements on human rights in China during his visit to Thailand cause Beijing to block cooperation on denuclearizing North Korea or removing trade friction - both of which are in China’s own interests.
Nevertheless, there is a price paid when leaders of free nations allow human rights issues to slip off the agenda.
Citizens of democracies expect their governments to address these issues.
Ignoring human rights only increases domestic pressure for more action, and this can end up doing more damage to bilateral diplomatic relations than a steady and consistent attention to human rights - even when such attention appears to be diplomatically inconvenient.
*The writer is a former senior director for Asian affairs at the U.S. National Security Council.
by Michael Green