A ‘Practical’ Worry About Albright

Times columnist Tom Plate also teaches ethics in UCLA's policy and communication studies programs. E-mail address:

I worry that Madeleine Albright will get off on the wrong foot with Asia. I know she’s only just gotten the job, so let’s give her a break, etc. etc. Still, as America’s first woman secretary of state jet-lags into Korea, Japan and China from Moscow later this week, I hope she tiptoes a bit more gingerly over there than she did in Washington during last month’s Senate confirmation hearing--you know, when she said that America’s relations with Asia were “practically” as important as with Europe. Thanks a lot, said Asia: Why put it that way? Can’t she love both her children equally? In reality, Asia, with its booming economies and populations, is “at least” as important as Europe. Albright--East Coast educated, career Europeanist, longtime member of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations--knows this. Doesn’t she? I can’t tell you how many Asians have asked me about “practically.”

And our new secretary of state has me worried in another respect. She tends to speak her mind. This can be dangerous for a diplomat. After all, in 1994, China, smarting from U.S. criticism of its jailing of dissidents and other things, practically threw the visiting Warren Christopher back on his airplane for Washington; and Albright’s circumspect predecessor almost never spoke his mind. A top State Department official suggests that I relax: “I think the chances of anything untoward happening in the Beijing meetings with Secretary Albright are extremely slim.” Adds sagacious China expert Richard Baum, a UCLA political science professor currently in Hong Kong to observe the hand-over: “I also worry about Albright’s lack of bedside manner, but the Chinese clearly appreciate straight talk. So let’s wait and see. So long as doubt remains, why not give Albright the benefit of it?”

The world expects, and needs, the Sino-U.S. relationship to be conducted with at least functional mutual respect and stellar care. Any other posture, by either, would rightly be viewed as irresponsible, even dangerous. Fortunately, Beijing particularly cares what other Asian nations think of its policies. But while Albright’s boss, President Clinton, buys into the U.S. business community’s engagement-and-cash-register line on China, we also know that he tends to waffle: If he kowtows to congressional and U.S. news media macho on China, Sino-U.S. relations could start to shred.

Albright, like many of us, feels deeply about human rights. That’s why she has cut loose on repressive Burma. But so far, she has kept her powder dry on China; the reality is, she must accept that even America the superpower can’t greatly affect China’s internal policies. And to insist on trying is to risk losing our ability to influence China’s external policies, an American capacity greatly desired by other Asian nations. In short, if we want to make ourselves feel virtuous, we can bang our heads against the Great Wall of China as long as we want. Or we can reflect on the wisdom of James R. Lilley, a former American ambassador to China and Korea: “The way the U.S. behaves, acts and thinks,” he told the Pacific Council on International Policy in Los Angeles last week, “will have a profound effect on the way China behaves, acts and thinks outside its borders.” But probably not inside them.


China, especially with regard to political dissidents, absolutely does practice more human wrongs than rights. But, remember, over the past 10 years the rights of average Chinese in many other respects have bloomed. Freedom of movement and economic choice and even in some ways commentary have continued to expand. But even supposing China were more closed and repressive than ever, which it’s not: The truth is, if the world wants peace in Asia, then China has to be kept peaceful. The stakes are huge. South Korea, now in internal turmoil, faces an increasingly shaky North Korea across the most heavily armed hostile border in the world. China casts a tremendous shadow over the tense Korean peninsula.

Yes, human rights everywhere are a concern, whether in the People’s Republic of China, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Burma, the former Yugoslavia, Indonesia--or even in America. So what that our own serious civil rights problems are of a lesser magnitude than China’s? Does that make them nonexistent or unimportant? In America one in three black men in their 20s are behind bars or caught up elsewhere in the criminal justice system. Let’s not forget that. Health care is a human right, too. At a recent meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Deputy Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers conceded that there can be little room for American complacency when a baby born in Shanghai has a better chance of making it to his fifth birthday than one born in New York.

Can’t one travel the road to China without being thought a fellow traveler? Can’t we agree that human rights in America are “practically” as important an issue to us as human rights in China? We will have vastly more influence in the world if we have the highest standards and expectations for ourselves--and measured and realistic expectations for China. America needs to preach less and let its actions on the home front do more of the talking. At best, America is only “practically” there.