Tuesday, April 8, 2008

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Does a Beijing boycott make sense?

In the wake of Olympic torch havoc, Hillary Clinton has called for George W. Bush to boycott the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

Steve Clemons thinks this is a really bad idea:

[S]he is out of bounds and reckless when calling for the weight of the presidency to be used to punish another nation at an event which is drawing China into the blue chip end of the international order, into global institution building and stakeholding, and which is stroking China's national pride at a key point in its ascendancy as a self-realized important power.

Hillary Clinton's call for boycotting the opening ceremonies is an example of a simple-minded, binary approach to US-China relations.

Apparently, she has been led to believe that if Bush is absent at the ceremonies that China will help us on Sudan or allow Tibet a track to political autonomy or independence. This is wrong and naive. China will do neither - and if anything, we will embarrass those in the China establishment who are advocates of deal-making with America and proponents of responsible global stakeholding, which has been the course we have seen China on.

There is no doubt that China's positive role in the troubled Six Party Talks moved our affairs with North Korea forward - even though this process proves to have predictably unpredictable swings up and down. China also proffered some counsel to Iran behind the scenes in advocating release of several intellectuals that Iran had arrested last year as China was not eager to see a substantially tightened third round of economic sanctions out of the UN at that time, and China helped give Iran an important nudge when we needed it.

America and the world have a serious brewing problem with Iran and an ongoing challenge with North Korea. China has secured strategic footholds in Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia, and is spreading its influence in the Caucuses. China is not a natural ally of Russia - in fact, quite the reverse - and yet bumbling American policy seems to be throwing them together in common circumstances in ways that should not be happening.

Hillary Clinton or any President needs to avoid the temptation to pander to the American public when crises with the key global powers emerge. They need to demonstrate an awareness of our core interests with China and what we most want from China in the arena of international affairs.

I'm a big fan of the responsible stakeholder idea, but I do think Clemons is overreacting here.

Contra Clemons, having Bush forego the opening ceremonies is not an example of a "simple-minded, binary approach" to China. All-or-nothing would have been if Clinton had called for a complete boycott of the Games. Instead, she's calling for a step that would take some of the luster off of the opening cereomnies. That's a modulated step.

Sports boycotts have a mixed track record. The summer Olympics faced boycotts in 1976, 1980, and 1984, and South Africa faced a sports boycott during the apartheid era. The Olympics boycotts did not achieve much (though of the three, the Moscow boycott probably did the most damage to the target). The South Africa boycott, on the other hand, did have a pronounced effect on South Africa.

It strikes me that Clinton's error is not in calling for a boycott of the opening ceremonies, but calling for Bush to do without consultation. If I were advising Bush, I would suggest that he start talking with other heads of state that are planning to attend -- Nicolas Sarkozy has already hedged on his attendance, for example -- to see if a common position can be forged as a means of extracting concessions from China. It can't just be the usual suspects, either -- you would want developing country democracies included in the conversation.

Furthermore, I'd try to bring in leaders who have already said they wouldn't attend, like Angela Merkel, as a way to proffer a carrot towards China.

Would any of this accomplish anything? Even if China did not budge, it very well might. China desperately wants these Games to be a stamp of legitimacy on the government. A multilateral withholding of that stamp makes their life difficult, and I suspect they would be willing to bargain in order to avoid it.

UPDATE: Henry Farrell makes an interesting point on the boycott question:

As best I understand it (I am open to corrections if wrong), in the past, Olympics politics have concerned inter-state rivalry, and have been driven by decisions on the part of traditional political elites. The US boycott of the Soviet games in protest against the invasion of Afghanistan in 1980 resulted from a decision by Jimmy Carter, and the tit-for-tat boycott by the Soviets and their allies of the LA games in 1984 resulted from a top level decision too. The dynamic driving the Beijing Olympics seems to me to be rather different; what we are seeing is that the politics of boycott is being driven by mass-publics, and most recently by protestors, rather than by political leaders. In the absence of the public unrest that has culminated in the recent protests in Paris, I doubt very much that Western political leaders would be muttering about not showing at the opening ceremonies the geopolitical stakes of market access etc are likely more important to them than the fate of Tibetans. But given the widespread public reaction in the West, even leaders like Gordon Brown, who obviously want very much to attend, are having to insulate themselves from public pressures by taking other actions liable to annoy China (such as meeting with the Dalai Lama). In short, I think we are seeing how public opinion and organized cross-national opposition can create significant constraints on the ability of leaders to respond to what they see as the geostrategic necessity of keeping China happy.
It should be noted, however, that here's one element in this equation that hasn't been discussed -- the attitude of the mass Chinese public towards all of this. From what I've read since the Tibetan riots broke out (and, like Henry, I'm open to correction if I'm wrong), the majority of Chinese are furious with the Chinese government for not cracking down even more in Tibet.

My biggest worry about any kind of boycott is the nationalist backlash among the mass Chinese public that it would provoke.

posted by Dan on 04.08.08 at 08:52 AM


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