On Obama's Asian diplomacy -- #1

By James Fallows

First of several updates on the fly:

On reflection, I still stick with my initial reaction to the Shanghai Town Meeting appearance, rather than being won over by the on-scene complaints of my Shanghai friend Adam Minter as described here. If you combine Obama's opening statement (White House version here), with his answers to the questions about the Great Firewall, it seems to me that he said just about as much on censorship and liberties as a visiting dignitary could say, in the circumstances.

I mean, seriously -- consider what he said in the opening statement. He talked about America's founding documents and the long struggle to match American reality to their promises. Then he said:

"Those documents put forward a simple vision of human affairs, and they enshrine several core principles -- that all men and women are created equal, and possess certain fundamental rights; that government should reflect the will of the people and respond to their wishes; that commerce should be open, information freely accessible; and that laws, and not simply men, should guarantee the administration of justice....

"And that is why America will always speak out for these core principles around the world.   We do not seek to impose any system of government on any other nation, but we also don't believe that the principles that we stand for are unique to our nation.  These freedoms of expression and worship -- of access to information and political participation -- we believe are universal rights.  They should be available to all people, including ethnic and religious minorities -- whether they are in the United States, China, or any nation.  Indeed, it is that respect for universal rights that guides America's openness to other countries; our respect for different cultures; our commitment to international law; and our faith in the future.

The Chinese students in the audience were smart. They understood what he was saying. In the circumstances, how much more obvious did he need to be? Those circumstances included: Obama's being in China for his first official visit; his knowing (as he must have, from his briefings) that the big Chinese bugaboo is "outside interference" from foreigners telling them what to do; and his knowing that he had business on many fronts ahead of him in Beijing. Even in those circumstances he clearly said: America believes that openness and liberties are not quaint American practices but are in fact universal and should be available to everyone, including in China. In domestic American politics, Obama has been known for doing his work with the scalpel rather than the sledgehammer. How much less deft would we like him to be on a foreign visit?

Similarly with his answer about censorship and the Great Firewall:

"I am a big believer in technology and I'm a big believer in openness when it comes to the flow of information.  I think that the more freely information flows, the stronger the society becomes, because then citizens of countries around the world can hold their own governments accountable.  They can begin to think for themselves. That generates new ideas.  It encourages creativity. 

"And so I've always been a strong supporter of open Internet use.  I'm a big supporter of non-censorship.  This is part of the tradition of the United States that I discussed before, and I recognize that different countries have different traditions.  I can tell you that in the United States, the fact that we have free Internet -- or unrestricted Internet access is a source of strength, and I think should be encouraged."

"I'm a big supporter of non-censorship" is ungainly. But what's wrong with the statement as a whole?

Foreign leaders do not typically go to other countries and frontally criticize the way those places they're run -- at least not if they're smart, or serious. For instance, when Hugo Chavez made his famous "I smell the devil!" crack after following G.W. Bush to the podium at the U.N., this was not a sign of his wanting to do business with America. Yes, you got Chavez's point, in all its gross clownishness. Who could miss Obama's point in Shanghai? Would we welcome a French or German prime minister coming to a US town meeting in the Bush years, shortly before a negotiating session at the White House, and saying, "Of course we condemn waterboarding, Guantanamo, and Abu Ghraib"? I condemn those things too, but is that the shrewdest thing for a foreign president to say while here?

More later, but I thought the words stand up well and got across the intended message.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2009/11/on-obamas-asian-diplomacy-1/30340/