This time last year, I was celebrating Obama's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. What most impressed me with this speech was his emphasis on the ambivalence of world politics; we must strive to make the world better, but also realize that we will never completely succeed. For me -- and I suspect many others -- that ambivalence has turned into disappointment, in both domestic and international politics. Even with this jaded outlook, however, I could not help but be angered by the contrast between the stirring -- but guarded--rhetoric of last year's speech, and this year's ceremony.
The Nobel Peace Prize committee gave the award to Liu Xiaobo, a pro-democracy dissident currently imprisoned in China. China did not allow Liu, his family, or his supporters to attend the ceremony, and the chair reserved for the Peace Prize recipient was left empty. The last time something like this occurred was, literally, in Nazi Germany.
Human Rights Watch's Nicholas Bequelin has a good piece in Foreign Policy on the incident, highlighting the extreme measures China has taken to prevent the award from resonating domestically. He argues that China's broad crackdown surrounding the Nobel Peace Prize will be counterproductive. Bequelin is right to commend the Nobel committee for their choice, but I'm not sure I agree that China's moves will ultimately harm its interests internationally.
This is due to the obvious fact of China's immense economic clout. Few countries, weak or strong, are willing to upset China and risk economic retaliation. This can be seen in the countries that boycotted the ceremony. Yes, Serbia reversed its decision to boycott under pressure to live up to European Union standards (it is currently a candidate for membership). But many other states went through with the boycott. These aren't just the usual anti-West/anti-American states either. It was no surprise that Cuba, Kazakhstan and Venezuela boycotted. But so did Iraq and Afghanistan, whose governments exist because of the United States. Then there were several states who have received significant aid and security assistance from the United States; this includes Colombia, Egypt, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Saudi Arabia.
Examining this list of states can provide some insight into why they were willing to cross the human rights community. All of these states have significant trade ties with China, or want them. They are also, with the exception of the Philippines, non-democratic states, and thus have an incentive to dissuade dissidents. And the democratic outlier, the Philippines, is very close geographically to China, giving it an even greater interest in keeping Beijing happy.
We are thus witnessing the distressing convergence of economic interests, regime type, and security concerns. These represent three sets of pressures leaders face: the desire to maintain their country's wealth, the fear of losing power to domestic rivals, and the need to protect the country. These often push in different directions: steps taken to ensure economic growth could increase domestic dissent, while security enhancements could undermine economic activity. In this case, they all point in the same direction: boycotting the ceremony makes China happy -- which helps both a state's economy and security -- and sends a signal to would-be domestic critics. This makes it much more difficult to pry these states away from China than would be the case if they had to balance divergent interests.
There is little the United States can do to address the economic issues. China will likely keep growing, and its economic power will be difficult to undermine, or counter. And, as evidenced in the countries boycotting the ceremony, security guarantees will be of minimal effectiveness. This might be due to China's lack of overt threats to its neighbors, or the fact that leaders in states like Afghanistan and Pakistan realize the United States needs them as much as they need the United States, giving them some freedom of action. There may be some potential when it comes to regime type, as the pressure to follow democratic norms could outweigh economic interests, as seen in Serbia's decision.
Ultimately, this brings us back to Obama's Nobel speech. The United States' ability to improve the world is limited. Economic incentives, military actions, and pro-democracy rhetoric will not push the international community into demanding Liu Xiaobo's release, or prevent other countries from following China's lead. But that does not justify a cynical, amoral approach to world politics. Democratic norms and the promise of membership in an economic bloc brought Serbia around; it is this type of subtle, incremental change that will socialize states like China into a liberal international order. And it this nuanced approach to the world that so perfectly meshes with Obama's strengths as a leader.
This piece was previously posted at The Reaction