Boycott the Olympics? There's no point in hollow threats

Three days ago, Fred Hiatt, who runs the Washington Post's editorial page, published a column about China's tolerance and support for the brutal junta in Burma. Its action point was this:



And here's something else I would do: Tell China that, as far as the United States is concerned, it can have its Olympic Games or it can have its regime in Burma. It can't have both.



I thought that was a bad and shallow idea -- and I say that even having some awareness, from trips to Burma over the last 19 years, how dark the situation there is. (The day after George Bush's 2002 State of the Union address identifying Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as the axis of evil, I said on a radio interview: if he is serious, he should have added Burma.)


At the invitation of the paper's "Post Global" feature, I laid out some of the reasons I think an ultimatum is foolish strategy. The text of that argument comes after the jump; the Post Global feature itself is here.


I didn't say there something else I think: that the idea of taking a brave, clear stand on China and Burma, and waving away as mere details any thought about the consequences, is reminiscent of the Post editorial page's relentlessly pro-war stance in the year leading up to the invasion of Iraq. Then the editorial page, under Hiatt, was impatient with any suggestion that we should wait, that we should think hard about the consequences of an occupation, that we should be very careful before launching a discretionary war. All of that was for wimps.


The tone of the Post's editorials was not the major factor, but was a factor, in cowing people in DC who might have objected to the rush to war. I've got nothing against Hiatt personally, whom I like; but I do have something against his page's pro-war tone in those days. I mention it because, again, I think there is a similarity in the "don't bother me with details, goddammit" tone.


Text of Post Global article follows:

Ultimatums Won't Move China


If a country makes a threat, it must be ready to carry it out. The plain fact is, virtually no country in the world, certainly not the United States, is ready to carry out the threat to boycott the Olympics. Therefore other countries should pressure China. And talk with China. And leave in the background the suggestion that China’s grand and gala opening-to-the-world event, toward which so much of its money and attention is now being devoted, will be forever tainted if the Chinese government continues to look like the evil Burmese junta’s only foreign friend. But it would be foolish to waste time with ultimatums to the effect: Olympics or Burma, take your pick. The Chinese would know that the foreigners didn’t mean it.Why would they know that? Because the foreign governments understand a point that some foreign editorialists miss: that China as a whole – not just its government but also the great majority of its people — would take such a boycott as a deeply hostile act.


For every one Chinese person who said: “Yes! We respect Foreign Nation X for showing our undemocratic government the importance of human rights in foreign policy!” there would be a thousand more who said this instead: “Those foreigners! They humiliated our nation during the Opium Wars. They stood by while the Japanese humiliated us 70 years ago. And now, as we are preparing to welcome them and show them what we have achieved, they are determined to spoil our great event. That is because they simply cannot stand the idea of our success. Our long drive over the last 25 years should earn us success in the world, and the bastards simply won’t give it to us. We cannot trust them, because they will never accept us.”


I don’t see a lot of evidence of Chinese walking around with that chip on their shoulder right now. The Olympic Games cause a lot of grumbling – the shady land and construction deals, the razing of neighborhoods. But my observation is that many more people – average people – are actually proud of this upcoming event than skeptical of it, and that most of them think the world will be pleased and impressed by it, too. Foreign governments who deal with China surely understand this. If they don’t, they need new diplomats telling them what is going on.


I am constantly amazed, and I think most Americans here feel the same, by how little overt anti-Americanism I encounter in China. (Japanese expats here might tell a different story.) But those who were here when the U.S. bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade say that the rage against Americans then was physically frightening. All at once the mood turned angrily hostile. (I have not met anyone in China who thinks that bombing was an “accident.”) The potential for nationalistic reaction against “disrespect” toward China is great. Again, the point: the prevailing outlook by average Chinese toward Americans seems positive, and about the only thing that could change it would be something perceived as a slap at national dignity.


It would be perceived as an unprovoked slap, too. Part of the reason, obviously, is that the Chinese media aren’t carrying the slaughter-in-Rangoon footage now appearing in the West. Moreover, Chinese people have heard for years their government’s line about “non-interference” as the guiding principle of foreign policy. I’m not saying that everyone takes the principle at face value. But, to put it mildly, the population has in no way been prepared for the idea that what its government calls “non-interference” in Burma has become so dire an indictment in the world’s eyes that its years-in-the-planning Olympic festivities must be called off. In numbers again: for each 1000 Westerners who think the Burmese outrages have reached that point, one person in China will think so.


Is such an embittering step toward China – not just its regime but also its population – one that other countries are willing to take? I don’t think so. It is not a matter of (to use the inevitable term) kow-towing to the Chinese leadership. It simply is recognizing the view of the Chinese population. The U.S. was way too slow to think about the consequences of alienating a billion or so of the world’s Muslims with its Iraq and “global war on terror” policies. I think it would at least pause before alienating another billion or so people.


And, to cap it off: There is almost no reason to think that the ultimatum would work. You show me someone who has studied Chinese politics and thinks the leadership responds well to outright “or else!” threats, and I’ll show you, umm, an unusual scholar or diplomat.


So does the outside world simply ignore the horror in Burma, and China’s role as the regime’s main source of support? Of course not. Other countries should be denouncing the Burmese generals as forcefully as they can. Meanwhile, they should look for any solution that will lead to getting these tyrants out of office and out of Burma, including, if necessary, letting them keep much of the loot they have plundered. Publicly, governments like America’s should urge China to take a more active role in saving lives in Burma; privately, they should make the same point to the Chinese leadership in much tougher terms. But the crux of their argument should be: Welcome to the big leagues! This is the kind of responsibility you take on when you have more influence in the world. And you’re going to look bad in everyone’s eyes, and have your long drive toward respect and trust and influence be damaged, if people think that China stands for nothing more than reliable raw-material supplies. Even if you don’t care about Burma’s people, if you do care about China’s standing, then you need to do more than you have done.


Every diplomatic resource that other countries have, they should use. But leave off the pointless, “Or else we won’t come to the Olympics” ultimatum. It comes across as: Or else I’ll hold my breath until I turn blue.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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