Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Chinese Wake-Up Call

James Skillen


April 23, 2001

While many have praised President Bush for his handling of the spy-plane incident off the coast of China, the public seems impatient now. We want tough action in response to the Chinese pilot's aggression and to the refusal of Chinese leaders to return our plane. After all, haven't we bent over backwards to cooperate with China economically and haven't we been patient waiting for them to become democratic? How dare they act this way?

Wake up to the real world! China may not be acting as we wish they would, but that shouldn't shock us. China is not unique in failing to comply with American wishes about how the world should be run. I say this not to condone or approve recent Chinese actions, but in order to turn the spotlight on our own naiveté about ourselves and about the world.

We tend to believe—and to argue—that the whole world will gradually move toward democracy and become more like us and sympathetic toward us. Thus, when the United States grants China most-favored-nation status in world trade, or works to help it join the World Trade Organization, or shows patience with its human rights abuses, we expect its leaders to move forward from China's free-market experiment to the next steps on our agenda. China should show signs of becoming more democratic and more like us.

But why should we expect that? Look at Russia, which was supposed to become more like America once the Wall came down. American free-marketeers rushed in after 1989 to urge quick economic reforms. Today, more than a decade later, the Russian economy is in shambles and we are denouncing President Putin's repression of the free media in his country. In reaction, The Washington Post's editors (4/18) exhibit the very naiveté I just described: "The United States supported Russia's addition to the club of seven rich democracies even though it was neither rich nor fully democratic; the idea was that inclusion in annual summit meetings would encourage Moscow to cooperate and eventually integrate with the democratic West." Well, Russia has failed to behave as the U.S. expected. So, what should we do now? The U.S. should spank the Russians, says The Post: "there should be no place at a summit of Western democracies, or any European political council, for a government that has suppressed freedom of speech..."

The difficulty with this argument is that despite America's superpower status, it does not run the world. Other nations do not decide how to conduct themselves simply by reacting to American enticements and spankings. Moreover, not even "the West" shares a single view of the world. Some European governments and "political councils" have recently denounced certain American behaviors—on the environment, on sanctions against Saddam Hussein, on the Balkans, and more. The rest of the world does not wear our glasses.

We, the American public, must wake up to the real, post-Cold-War world and urge our leaders to do two things. First, they should take more time to understand and then interpret for us the views of other nations, both friends and enemies. We need to understand the reasons for both the disagreements and the agreements the United States has with other countries so we can outgrow our naiveté.

Second, the president and foreign policy leaders need to strengthen the foundations of our political and legal partnerships with allies and friends. This goes beyond crisis management and economic cooperation. NATO is no longer what it was. The World Trade Organization has not yet taken solid shape. International environmental law is still up for grabs. What are the international standards for political, diplomatic, and military practice our allies and we agree on today? We must not take anything for granted. The day for mature, wide-awake international politics has come.

—James W. Skillen, President
   Center for Public Justice


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”