By Kathy Kemper – 02/23/09 08:12 AM ET
Hillary Clinton has sent a powerful message by making Asia first on her list of places to visit.
It would’ve been perfectly reasonable of her to visit our allies in Europe first or to make it a priority to visit the chaos-ridden Middle East. In going to Asia, though, she announced to the world that she recognizes the most important trend of the 21st century: the shift of power from West to East. Although her trip received a lot of press, it would’ve gotten far more if discussions of the stimulus package and economic turmoil didn’t dominate the front pages of the world’s leading newspapers.
The true brilliance of her comments on her Asian trip lay in a display of what one might call “strength through humility.” Acknowledging China’s rise doesn’t mean that the U.S. is irreversibly declining. Quite the contrary. Everyone knows that we’re still No. 1 — there’s a reason why we’re being looked to for leadership on the financial crisis. Rather, part of being the big guy on top is acknowledging when other countries work hard and make their impact known.
She was gracious, telling the Chinese to avoid the mistakes that we made when we were industrializing at a breakneck pace. Secretary Clinton also declared that China and the U.S. must take the lead on solving the pressing problems that confront our world, including the financial crisis and climate change (the big-time British historian Niall Ferguson has called the U.S. and China the “G2”).
She also handled the dicey issue of human rights in China with finesse. Secretary Clinton did not, as some have argued, trivialize them — human-rights abuses in China are a serious issue. At the same time, though, we have to be practical. Would the U.S. seriously consider not cooperating with China on the world’s most daunting challenges on human-rights grounds? Doing so would be crazy. Plus, we’ll have a far better chance of getting the Chinese to improve their human-rights record by engaging them thoughtfully than by beating them over the head every chance we get.
There’s a more important point to be made here. Human-rights advocates should be the strongest supporters of Clinton’s approach. China and the U.S. need to build trust with each other. The financial crisis is the first and most important litmus test. If they can’t build confidence by cooperating on that matter, there’s no way that they’ll be able to make progress on human rights.
Confidence is key. FDR tried to restore confidence to the American people when the Great Depression hit. Reagan tried to restore confidence to the American people when terrorists attacked the Marine Corps’ barracks in Lebanon. Today, we’re not just talking about the American people — we’re talking about a global community that’s looking to China and the U.S. to help us move forward.