To Boycott or Not to Boycott? An Olympics Debate

The New Republic hosts a two-part debate over the question, “In light of China’s manifold human rights problems, how should fans, Olympic athletes, presidential candidates, and the U.S. government itself respond to the games?” In Part One, Steven Clemons of the New America Foundation argues against a boycott:

Hillary Clinton–or any president–needs to avoid the temptation to pander to the American public when crises with key global powers emerge. A president needs to demonstrate an awareness of our core interests with China and a strategy for getting what we most want from the Asian power in the arena of international affairs.

Nukes should be at the top of that list, and then there should be a cascading set of second, third, and fourth priorities. A new or revised economic arrangement would be second on my list, and then perhaps a serious commitment to climate change in third or fourth place. Human rights should be on the list, but the pursuit of Chinese subscription to a higher human rights bar should be a serious effort characterized by consultations, encouragement, and deal-making that involves incentives and, yes, disincentives.

In Part Two, New Republic deputy editor Richard Just responds:

While I think our athletes should go to Beijing, I also think the U.S. government should use every tool short of a full boycott to embarrass China over its human rights record, at home and abroad. In this vein, Hillary Clinton’s suggestion that President Bush skip the opening ceremonies strikes me as a good idea. Alternatively, Bush could go to the Games and deliver a major speech with other western leaders designed to shame China on human rights. Or he could demand to meet with jailed dissidents. Or he could tell China that he will only attend the Games if he is allowed to speak beforehand in Tibet.

Steve’s argument that the president should not be in the business of publicly shaming China over human rights during the run-up to the Olympics rests on two planks: first, that human rights should take a backseat to other issues in the relationship between China and the United States, such as nuclear proliferation and economics; and, second, that shaming China over human rights will only backfire, worsening the human rights situation rather than improving it.