Freedom intrinsic to who we are as Americans
In President Obama's meetings with Chinese President Hu Jintao this week, should discussion of human rights and religious freedom be on par with economic and environmental issues, or should human rights and religious freedom be secondary matters?
Whether China or any other country, the real issue for U.S. foreign policy is twofold: 1) Should the U.S. discuss and promote religious freedom and human rights abroad in the same manner that it does national security and the economy? 2) If religious freedom and human rights are to be included, how should that discussion take place?
[Note: I place religious freedom before human rights because I believe that religious freedom is the freedom of conscience or belief--a freedom that entails a responsibility to respect someone else's freedom of conscience or belief, especially those who hold diametrical and even irreconcilable views to one's own. If one does not respect the "other," then the real potential exists for that "other" person to be dehumanized through stereotype, opening the door to hate and even violence. Without freedom of conscience, there is no freedom of inquiry, speech, press, assembly. Religious freedom is the first human right because it is fundamentally about how one understands and therefore treats his/her neighbor.]
Regarding the first question, there are several reasons why religious freedom/human rights should be treated on par with other U.S. foreign policy issues. Foremost, religious freedom and human rights are at the core of American identity. It has taken us almost 235 years to reach this state of imperfection, but we have relentlessly, if incrementally, made our union more perfect.
American foreign policy is not American if religious freedom is not a priority. Religious freedom is not a geo-political issue, nor is it Republican or Democrat: it is simply a function of who we are as a people. As a senior Vietnamese official said to me once: "Whether we like it or not, we recognize religious freedom as a permanent U.S. national interest."
Second, when our foreign policy does not treat religious freedom/human rights with the same gravitas and priority as national security and economy, then why should we expect foreign governments to do so?
Third, religious freedom and human rights are intrinsically linked to the stability that security and economy demand. For example, people who can practice their faith freely are less likely to agitate against the state, and more likely to contribute positively to society, as the vast majority of all faith traditions teach. Moreover, the presence of faithful people stands as a self-policing mechanism against extremism, and a moral bulwark against the corruption that often holds back development in countries transitioning to a market economy. In turn, environments of social stability invite foreign direct investment.
As for the question of how religious freedom and human rights should be included in the agenda, the essential issue is how the discussion is conceived and received. Too often, with the best of intentions, American human rights proponents -- whether in government or as non-governmental advocates -- discuss religious freedom and human rights with a name, blame and shame approach. Not surprisingly, this public method is often not well received well by foreign governments (especially when it's true). Indeed, while Americans feel that they are clearly speaking truth to power, that foreign government, and even its public, can receive such admonitions as imperial and condescending.
In other words, what we say is not always what they hear (and vice-versa). To admit this simple fact is not appeasement. It is merely to name the same communications phenomenon that we all know from relating to other parts of our own country, or even in relating to our own parents or grandparents: there are just some things that have to be said and conveyed in a certain way. To say so otherwise is to have the door closed before you knock.
That said, clearly, America should not base its efforts on how it is perceived. And certainly there is a place for honest discussion in the global public square. But in the pursuit of long-term, practical impact, particularly in places that do not share the same values as we do in the same manner, an intentionally institutionalized conversation serves the most good for the most people over the long-term.
An intentionally institutionalized conversation, to my mind, has several characteristics. First, there is an accepted bilateral space for habitual dialogue, no matter the domestic/international politics of the moment. This is the first sign of a mature relationship. Second, there is an ongoing attempt to discern common principles from the respective cultures, and thus common words. For example, every culture has a mechanism for respecting the other, for showing hospitality for the guest.
Third, there is occasionally room at the table for non-state actors, NGOs from both countries that are trusted by both sides for insight and implementation. And fourth, as required, there are roadmap agreements, developed together, that lay out tangible steps that not only protect but promote faith communities as contributing elements to a stable state and a flourishing society.
Finally, the above makes two assumptions: 1) that officials have been trained to think/talk about religious freedom and human rights as they relate to national security and economy; and, 2) that there is an institutional point-of-contact within each government through which an intentionally institutionalized conversation can deepen and expand as a key ingredient to a mature bilateral relationship.
I obviously cannot speak for Chinese governmental agencies, but I do know that there has been precious little awareness, training, and education for U.S. government personnel such that they can relate religious freedom and human rights to national security and the economy.
I also know that the U.S. government has not had an ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom for over two years. If the American people created this position through an act of Congress in 1998, and it has been unoccupied for so long, then why should foreign governments take this issue seriously?
January 19, 2011; 9:24 AM ET
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