Peking Duck

Selling out--constructively


Didn't Bill Clinton rail against George Bush in Campaign '92 for "coddling Chinese dictators"? Or is that memory just some sort of collective national delusion?

Unfazed–or perhaps encouraged–by the mysterious appearance of shady characters with access to the Chinese government and millions of dollars, Clinton has opted to welcome "President" Jiang with open arms. An official state visit, the first head-to-head summit since 1985, the rolling of the red carpet–all for the regime that Candidate Clinton trashed President Bush for insufficiently isolating in the wake of Tiananmen Square.

Indeed, the current administration is actively pursuing trade normalization with the Chinese, the very issue that drove Clinton's attack on Bush-Quayle (and apparently motivated the Chinese money launderers in their Democratic largess in Campaign '96). In response to protests that such policies constitute a sellout of human dignity, the administration calmly sends forth Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to intone that we are still 100 percent committed to promoting human rights in China. And that the most effective way to do that is to work with the Chinese government, not against them.

This, too, we've all heard before–and not just from Bill Clinton, who has stumbled on to the right China policy. In this, he follows in the footsteps of Ronald Reagan, who embraced what was called "constructive engagement." It was his administration's rationale for opposing economic sanctions in the global effort to isolate South Africa.

While Reagan never had the temerity to invite South Africa's chief of state to the White House for a happy-hour buffet, constructive engagement was roundly denounced by learned Americans as a sad reminder of their leader's lack of commitment to civil rights. Some went a bit further, of course, denouncing Reagan as a "racist" (to use Nobel Peace Prize winner Bishop Desmond Tutu's term).

Even those who analyzed the struggle over apartheid as a particularly striking example of a more-generalized political competition risked the charge of moral turpitude, as the great journalist-historian Paul Johnson found when The New Republic savagely caricatured him as an apologist for white supremacy. Johnson had suggested in a 1985 Commentary article that the apartheidists were another of Africa's tribes that had successfully used the state to suppress rival populations, much as victors in other ethnic dictatorships. Such reasoning was adjudged insufficiently hard on apartheid as diabolically sui generis, and Johnson became suspected of high crimes against humanity.

Eventually, the Reagan administration levied economic sanctions against South Africa in September 1985 (with Congress following suit a year later). The result was nothing–at best. In the wake of sanctions, the South African stock market soared as local investors picked up "fire sale" bargains. The pro-apartheid National Party gained political momentum it had lost years before, largely due to the intense "rally 'round the flag" boost that all sanctioned pariah governments–from South Africa to Iraq–tend to enjoy.

Reform in South Africa had to wait out a sanctions-era political retrenchment, including the imposition of martial law in 1985 and a 1987 increase in electoral power for the National Party. Liberalization was ultimately ushered in not by sanctions but by the collapse of communism, which eliminated the possibility of a radical left in South Africa.

University of Sussex economist Merle Lipton, author of the seminal Capitalism and Apartheid, wrote a superb study of this process in 1990. But the group that commissioned the study, the pro-sanctions Investors Responsibility Research Center, suppressed it after she reached the wrong conclusions.

Our country's long-running Cuba sanctions tell the same tale, that isolation breeds contempt, not reform. Isn't it painfully obvious that Copa Communism is held up by the thinnest of threads–the American boycott? Wouldn't a herd of American tourists to Havana simply crush El Presidente Castro in a shopping mall stampede?

But the politics of the Cuba sanctions require American congressmen to have the cojones to heroically pursue pointless policies with counter-counter-revolutionary results. (For fans of symmetry, it's simply elegant that those who tend to be "soft on communism" in Cuba were precisely those who tended to be so outraged by "apologists for apartheid," and vice versa.)

The truth about sanctions is that they are typically one big geopolitical belly flop: A big splash and some self-inflicted pain. What's more, it's water sport to think that we must like those we buy from or sell to (do you check your grocer for political correctness, or do you examine her peaches?), or that we win hearts and minds by ham-handed attempts to solve longstanding battles in far-off locales. Those who argue for boycotting bad boys strike a righteous public pose–often at the cost of undermining progressive forces for genuine changes.

China's dictatorship will corrode with the drip of free trade water torture far faster than by ill-fated attempts at isolation. (Those who order tanks to run over dissidents don't embarass all that easily.) I have little doubt that Bill Clinton has seen the light for all the wrong reasons. But that's the beauty of economic self-interest: It shines even on those who stumble in moral darkness.