Calibrating Our Response

Published April 1, 1994

Some of what Havel had to say in his Foreign Affairs article struck me as a bit overwrought. His forebodings about global “ecological catastrophe” and his criticisms of an “anthropocentric” view of the earth are unhappily reminiscent of the circles of Western self-deprecation that Havel quite rightly criticized once for their incomprehension of what was at stake along the Yalta fault line.

And while I certainly share President Havel’s conviction that democracy is metaphysically and morally grounded, I cannot say that I find the path between the metaphysics of morals and U.S. foreign policy quite so straight as he seems to do. At the level of metaphysics and morals, it is certainly true that freedom threatened anywhere threatens freedom everywhere. But we, meaning the United States, or even “the West,” cannot be “everywhere” at once, which means that we cannot unilaterally and universally enforce adherence to basic human rights and freedoms.

Moreover, certain threats to freedom pose a far more serious challenge to the future of liberty than others. This suggests that the virtue of prudence—a cardinal virtue, in classic Christian moral theology— has to guide our address to the problems of freedom in the specific locales where it is threatened. And prudence will dictate different responses in differing political, cultural, and strategic circumstances. Take the examples of Burma, Haiti, China, and east central Europe.


ڤ The government of Myanmar/Burma is odious and cruel, and U.S. foreign policy towards the thuggish generals ruling the country should reflect that fact: through diplomatic pressure on site and in international forums, and through whatever modest economic pressure we can muster. But I do not think that the state of affairs in Burma gravely affects the national interests of the United States, or that it has serious consequences for peace and freedom beyond Burma’s boundaries. And so it does not seem to me that the threat to freedom in Burma must weigh as heavily on U.S. or other Western policymakers as would a threat to freedom in, say, Poland, or Ukraine, or the Czech Republic. (Havel might reply that we haven’t done very much to demonstrate our concern about the threat to freedom in those countries, either, and here he would have a formidable case.)


ڤ President Havel’s moral-metaphysical formula also fails to shed much light on the dilemmas of the world’s underclass: countries like Somalia and, much closer to home, Haiti. What are we to do in situations like these, where the rudiments of civil society necessary to provide a foundation for institutionalized human rights and for the basic instruments of self-governance are simply missing?

Haiti poses very difficult choices for the United States indeed, not least because it is in our backyard. President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected to his office by what everyone admits was the fairest election in the country’s history and then was illegally ejected by the Haitian military. The U.S.-led embargo on Haiti is supposed to put such pressure on the Haitian generals that they will agree to Aristide’s restoration to the presidency; but, to date, the embargo has served principally to demolish what was left of the Haitian economy and to starve large numbers of Haitian men, women, and children, while failing to make much of an impression on the generals. More over, even if the embargo were to succeed there seems little chance that Aristide’s return would do anything other than set loose another round of murderous violence. Haitian “civil society” doesn’t exist; Aristide’s followers are eager for revenge, and the military and paramilitary forces are armed to the teeth; and the ousted president’s commitment to reconciliation and a genuine democratic process in his country is not altogether clear.

There is no political consensus, in the United States or anywhere else in the hemisphere, in favor of imposing and enforcing a settlement in Haiti through the presence of a large armed force under U.N. or OAS auspices. On the other hand, what does it do to the cause of freedom and democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean if a free and fair election in Haiti is summarily overturned? On the other, other hand, does any iron law of history or politics dictate that the tragedy of Haiti will inevitably spill over to, say, Brazil, or even the Dominican Republic?

Preparing Haiti for democracy would require a long-term commitment on the part of the OAS, and that would require serious U.S. leadership—which is not about to be invested, these days, on an issue such as Haiti. So the embargo is maintained (in part, to placate the Congressional Black Caucus) and the children go blind, or starve to death. This is not serious policy-making, in moral or diplomatic/strategic terms. But neither does Haiti’s travail constitute a real and present danger to freedom and democracy elsewhere.


ڤ Then there is China. Its human-rights policies have not significantly improved in recent years, and its “most favored nation” trading status with the United States is now up for grabs. One faction claims that the best way to “open up” Chinese politics is to accelerate the country’s already rapid transformation to a market economy. The pro-MFN party also worries that any delay in achieving an open U.S. trading relationship with China will redound to the benefit of the Japanese. (Indeed, fear over lost markets is the driving force behind the business community’s pro-MFN lobbying.) Others insist that abandoning our usual MFN standards in China would cripple U.S. human-rights policy throughout the world.

China is one of the great geopolitical facts of world politics: a country of over a billion people, with both the world’s fastest growing economy and an alarming rate of growth in military spending and arms exporting. It is a prime interest of the United States and “the West” to do whatever is in our power to support the pluralization of political power in China, and its eventual democratization.

At this stage of the game, I am not persuaded that our ability to influence freedom’s future in China stands or falls with the MFN question. For there are many other ways that we could help support the forces of pluralization, whether the People’s Republic enjoys MFN trading status or not. We could initiate twenty-four-hour-a-day broadcasting into China on Radio Free Asia (and move rapidly toward TV Free Asia). A designated “China Account” could be established and generously funded at the National Endowment for Democracy (as was done for South Africa). Multilateral aid programs from the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank, which go straight to the Communist state (rather than to entrepreneurs), could be cut off. Exchange programs for Chinese intellectuals, business leaders, and government officials could be run according to criteria that would foster pluralism. American corporations doing business in China could be required to meet certain standards regarding Chinese workers’ rights. The American religious community could mobilize itself to defend freedom of faith in the PRC. And the U.S. government, in cooperation with democratic allies, could make it plain privately (or, if necessary, publicly) that China’s integration into the community of advanced industrial (and post-industrial) nations will require restraint in China’s military expansion and arms exports.

Beijing’s recalcitrance on human rights is not encouraging. But we have to think long-term in dealing with the PRC: which means that we ought to be thinking beyond the polarities of the MFN debate. To deny MFN to the PRC and then, absent a comprehensive human-rights strategy, congratulate ourselves for doing something important for the people of China would be self-delusion. Renewing MFN for the PRC could, given will, imagination, and staying-power, open up numerous other opportunities to press ahead on the human-rights agenda. The agenda should not be negotiable; but the means we use to advance it can and should be flexible and multifaceted.


ڤ Finally, to return to President Havel’s part of the world: the centrality of European stability to the cause of freedom and to the security of the United States, the imperative of securing the gains of the Revolution of 1989, and a healthy dose of prudence all dictate that the Clinton administration’s “Partnerships for Peace” program be accelerated so that the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and perhaps Slovenia can be admitted to NATO in short order, perhaps with a first step being active associate membership in 1995. U.S. policy-makers should also work closely with east central European democratic governments to bring pressure to bear on western European governments whose protectionism is the most serious immediate threat to the consolidation of free societies in the new democracies east of the Elbe River.

In sum: Václav Havel is quite right to remind us that there are “moral imperatives” embedded in democracy, and that those imperatives bear on the formulation of a democracy’s foreign policy. But a morally grounded approach to American and Western responsibilities in the world does not yield a uniform response to the “threats to freedom” that exist all over the world. Calibration is in order, so that our reach does not exceed our grasp: for if it did, we would be frittering away the assets of freedom.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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