05/02/2012 06:19 pm ET Updated Jul 02, 2012

Balancing Human Rights and Superpower Politics

Tensions between Washington and Beijing mount with every development in the story of the blind Chinese lawyer Chen Guangcheng. Washington is trying to keep the issue low-key ahead of this week's "Strategic and Economic Dialogue," but Obama faces mounting Republican criticism that he is too soft on China's human rights record.

On Monday Obama defended his administration's record, stating that "every time we meet with China, the issue of human rights comes up. It is our belief that it is the right thing to do." To anybody who remembers the fraught debates of détente in the 1970s, Obama's remarks will sound very familiar. For this was the frequent refrain of National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

Like his fellow Nobel laureate Obama, Kissinger was accused of not prioritizing human rights during his attempt to normalize relations with the abusive super-power of the day, the Soviet Union. Congress even went so far as to legislate that the U.S. should make Most-Favored-Nation status with the Soviet Union contingent on an improvement in emigration figures for the embattled Soviet Jewish minority. This week's events will doubtless revive long-term debates about China's MFN status.

Nixon and Ford were constantly asked to make louder reproaches regarding Soviet abuses, and they persistently defended their tempered statements by claiming that "quiet diplomacy" was more effective. Like Obama, they would claim that every time they met with the Soviets they would discuss human rights, but that they would not publicly grandstand, because the Soviets could not afford to lose face over the issue.

Meanwhile the period of détente is replete with examples of the U.S. administration favoring a low-profile, ad hoc approach to individual "hardship cases" with the Soviet government. Kissinger tried to convince Congress and the American people that "quiet diplomacy" would get more people out of the Soviet Union than restrictive legislation; and the immediate impact of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment rather proved his point. A pertinent comparison is that of Simas Kurdika, a Lithuanian seaman who attempted to claim asylum aboard a U.S. Coast Guard vessel. In the confusion he was returned to Soviet authorities, tried and convicted of treason to great outcry in the West. But after Gerald Ford made a private intercession with Moscow, Kurdika was allowed to emigrate to the U.S.

It is true that Kissinger had fundamental reservations about the legitimacy of interventions in the sovereign affairs of other states, and that when he broached the issue of human rights with the Soviets he generally did so in an unproductively apologetic tone. But there were many other proponents of quiet diplomacy, who genuinely saw it as the best way to effect human-rights change. For example the measured opinion of the Moscow Embassy in 1975 was that:

"Direct government to government approaches will not work very often ... Nor will official public recrimination and accusations be effective; they are in many cases counterproductive for they tend to evoke petulant, defensive reactions from the regime ... The U.S. government's position, therefore, should be one of consistent public defence and promotion of human rights around the world, but without singling out the Soviet Union for inconsistent criticism."

Indeed today's arguments that human rights in China would be best protected by the gradual opening up of the Chinese system to contact with the West have strong resonances of another 1970s policy, one on which Kissinger was less keen than his own State Department: the Helsinki Process. That agreement would eventually lead to the building of a human rights monitoring community holding regimes behind the Iron Curtain to account for their actions, and many scholars now attribute it a significant role in ending the Cold War.

The hawks in the Republican Party howl for greater (by which they mean louder) attention to human rights in a manner reminiscent of Reagan's bid for the nomination in 1976. Though Ford survived that challenge he was eventually defeated by Jimmy Carter, who had made human rights a strong plank of his campaign.

Of course the comparison should not be taken too far: Obama decided to meet with the Dalai Lama last year, whereas Gerald Ford famously declined to entertain Solzhenitsyn at the White House in 1975. And Obama is comfortable asserting that human rights improvement would be "good for China," rather than making vague claims about it being good for the development of international relations (which was the U.S. line about Helsinki).

Furthermore, the international politics of human rights has come a long way since the 1970s. But the problem of changing the domestic behavior of a superpower persists. The difficult lesson for the modern human rights lobby is that in the end both sides of the détente debate turned out to be right: Kissinger's policy of opening contact with the Soviet regime was crucial to creating the space in which activists could exert pressure. Meanwhile the pressure exerted on the White House by the Congress and NGOs was crucial in convincing the Soviets that there was a real problem.

History suggests that human rights activists will never believe executives are exerting non-public pressure for human-rights change; executives will always complain the activists do not weigh the issues within the wide context of relations. The politics of human rights requires both sides in order to balance fully (for activism without power would achieve little). While Obama will doubtless be wary of appearing too Kissingerian, he is astute enough a statesman to know that the best outcome for Chen Guangcheng may well be achieved by allowing others to make most of the noise.