By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 23, 2009
BEIJING, Feb. 22 -- Hillary Rodham Clinton's blunt and unadorned style of diplomacy has been evident throughout her first trip as secretary of state the past week in Asia. She questioned the efficacy of sanctions against the repressive junta in Burma, spoke openly about a possible succession crisis in North Korea and admitted that she expected to make little progress on human rights in China.
To a certain extent, these comments crossed taboo lines in international diplomacy. U.S. officials generally do not say their sanctions have failed, or speculate about the future government of another country, or suggest that a carefully watched human rights dialogue is largely a farce.
Clinton's willingness to speak frankly -- combined with an extensive effort to get beyond ministerial meetings in order to hold town hall meetings and conduct local television interviews in the countries she visits -- suggests she will put a distinctive personal stamp on the Obama administration's foreign policy. What is emerging is something less rigid, less cautious and more open.
Before her meetings in Beijing, for instance, Clinton said she would raise human rights issues with Chinese officials, "but we pretty much know what they're going to say."
Clinton's comments have stirred outrage in the human rights community, where she was viewed as a hero for having confronted the Chinese government in 1995 over its record. Activists say that without public, sustained international pressure on human rights issues, nothing will change in China.
Clinton says she does not understand the fuss. In her view, speaking clearly -- and not obfuscating through diplomatic artifice -- helps enhance the policy, rather than undermine it.
"I think that to worry about something which is so self-evident is an impediment to clear thinking," Clinton told reporters traveling with her. "And I don't think it should be viewed as particularly extraordinary that someone in my position would say what's obvious."
Before leaving China on Sunday, Clinton wrapped up her week-long trip by visiting a state-sanctioned church and then meeting 23 women involved in legal, poverty and health-care organizations aimed at helping women and promoting gender equality.
Many of the women had previously met Clinton when she was the first lady or a senator. The one-hour session underscored Clinton's contention that working with such nongovernmental civic organizations can do as much to promote women's rights and human rights as does jawboning the Chinese government.
Gao Yaojie, an 82-year-old AIDS activist, told Clinton of being monitored and hassled by government agencies, declaring, "I am not afraid." But several others told the secretary of state that grass-roots organizations have grown fast and have had an increasing impact on Chinese society since they first met with her more than a decade ago.
In foreign policy circles, Clinton's remarks on human rights have stirred consternation that she is giving up possible leverage with China before any dialogue has begun. Others say that she is inviting criticism from Capitol Hill and human rights groups that undermines her ability as a diplomat.
But some experts have defended her, saying she should be commended for speaking frankly. The Bush administration was frequently criticized for having a hypocritical approach to human rights, claiming to promote freedom but treating differently friends and foes with similarly poor human rights records.
"I think she clearly feels it's necessary to induce realism and perspective to expectations and performance, and to tell the Chinese that Obama knows that we all need to work together, so she is determined not to let less centrally vital issues handicap that," said Chris Nelson, who writes an influential newsletter on Asian policy.
"I've always felt that the question with respect to human rights and China is not whether or not one presses the issue, but how one does it," said David Shambaugh, director of Asian policy studies at George Washington University. "Foreigners generally get much further when they do it in quiet rather than in public, when it is framed in a nonconfrontational way, and explained in terms of being in China's best interests."
He added: "Honesty is as good in diplomacy as in life -- it's just a question of when and how one frames their candor."
Former U.N. ambassador John R. Bolton, who was known for his bluntness, said he thinks "our diplomacy should be more candid, with less doublespeak, so if she really meant to say what she said, I don't mind at all. When the Democrats endorse candor in diplomacy, I'll be a happy man."
But he added: "The issue with whatever she says, candid or not, is whether it has an objective in mind, or whether she is just running at the mouth. This is the difference between an executive branch official and a senator, academic, think-tanker, reporter, whatever. Executive branch officials, by definition, are not just bloviating, but executing policies."
Others think Clinton is making needless trouble for herself.
"She is correct in the sense that no U.S. president since Nixon has let human rights stop necessary cooperation with China on critical strategic issues. On the other hand, the Obama administration's China policy is going to run into a buzz saw on Capitol Hill if people think that human rights are now being de-emphasized," said Michael J. Green, the top White House adviser on Asia under President George W. Bush. "The administration has to clarify quickly that it intends to build a cooperative relationship with China and continue pressing hard for improvements in human rights and on issues like Tibet."
James Mann, a Johns Hopkins University scholar who wrote a history of U.S.-China relations, viewed Clinton's remarks as part of a further downgrading of the importance of human rights in American policy toward China over the years.
"I agree that, to some extent, she's being honest, in the sense that merely including something in the talking points for diplomacy doesn't necessary lead to change and is sometimes designed more to mislead the public back home than to influence the interlocutors," said Mann, a former Los Angeles Times reporter.
But he wondered whether this honesty was now a general principle in the administration's approach to the world. "Is Hillary Clinton going to not mention women's rights to the Saudis because they already know what we think?" he said.
Mann, in particular, was struck by the contrast with her husband, who as president a decade ago gave strong speeches on behalf of political freedom in China.
"Bill Clinton told the leader of China he was on 'the wrong side of history,' " Mann noted. "Now, Hillary seems to be giving them the reverse message: that China is on the right side of history."