By Patricia Lee Sharpe
Traveling around the U.S. since I left the Foreign Service, I’ve been astonished by how little Americans know about the rest of the world and how our representatives deal with it, which is to say, about diplomacy. Sometimes, in despair about the deficiencies of U.S. education, I’ve found myself thinking, “No wonder Americans are so ready to go to war. They’re barely aware of an alternative that saves money and lives.” The Founders were savvier. That’s why the Secretary of State ranks above the Secretary of War (now the Secretary of Defense) in the Cabinet hierarchy.
Wikileaks—does anyone even remember Wikileaks?—may have caused some harm and embarrassment (though much less than predicted), but the release of those classified documents should have proved to those who seldom have anything good to say about America’s diplomats that U.S. foreign service officers are excellent analysts and very good writers, too.
The Fly in the Ointment
In the past two weeks, even Americans who barely notice the headlines had another chance to observe how diplomacy works—and to watch two levels of diplomacy dramatically intersecting at that. Just a few days before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was due to arrive in China for the climax of an important bilateral dialogue a well-known Chinese human rights activist sought refuge in the U.S. embassy in Beijing. If Chen Guangcheng were turned away, the Obama administration would be lambasted for abandoning America’s historic position of pressuring China to respect the civil liberties of its citizens. If he were given refuge, China would protest and an important bilateral conference might go up in flames.
And so a long-scheduled event collided with a totally out-of-the-blue crisis. Diplomats need to be able to handle both, but they seldom have to do justice to both at the same time. My impression is that the people at the U.S. embassy in Beijing did a pretty good, even impressive job of managing a difficult situation precipitated by an admirable, but impulsive, vacillating and conflicted petitioner.
The Limits of Reform in China
Chen Guangcheng came to the world’s attention some years ago when he exposed corruption involving China’s one child policy. Evidently he was never charged or tried for criminal activity, but vindictive, embarrassed local officials (no doubt with Beijing’s knowledge) had connived to solve their problem by building a very high wall around his house and keeping him under house arrest. Chen escaped—an astonishing tale that has been well told elsewhere—and sought refuge in the American embassy, with the not-particularly-well-thought-out idea that he might be granted asylum in the U.S. He himself might find refuge, but what would happen to his family and helpers if they were left behind, for instance?
When the U.S. opened its embassy doors to Chen, Chinese officialdom was furious. During any big conference, the spotlight is on the backdrop as well as the stars. Thanks to Chen, both China and the U.S. would be facing serious image problems instead of looking good at the conclusion of a successful event that was suddenly in danger of collapsing.
The Template for Success
Let’s begin at the beginning by considering the diplomatic routine that serves as a template for every formally scheduled international encounter, including the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue that was on the calendar for the first week of May 2012, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geitner would arrive in Beijing. You may be sure that State and Treasury Department specialists high and low had been working overtime at preparing position papers, conducting numerous preliminary negotiations over this or that detail, laying out talking points for meetings and press conferences, drawing up texts for formal agreements, writing speeches for plenaries, dinners and what have you. No doubt their Chinese counterparts were doing the same, maybe even more meticulously.
The goal in such instances is perfection: nothing will go wrong, and why should it? Both sides have already agreed to a framework, although bits and pieces may be added, subtracted or altered in the course of a major diplomatic encounter. Even if, at the end of a conference or dialogue, some or many contentious issues remain unresolved, there will always be publicly-announced take-aways to make negotiators from both countries look successful. As for the sensitive, landmine issues, that is what confidential meetings between principals are for. When, thereafter, they jointly meet the press, smiles will (usually) not be in short supply. Discrete allusions to unsolved problems are allowed. Diatribes are not. And the tricky things will continue to be discussed, quietly, after the Big Event. Patience is a big part of successful diplomacy.
This very efficient diplomatic machine was chugging along in the usual well-oiled way when a phone call to the U.S. embassy on March 25 changed everything. A very different sort of diplomacy was going to be called upon, and observers wondered if it was going to destroy the Dialogue that would open in a week's time.
Human Rights Can’t Be Ignored After All
Human rights is one of the running sores in the U.S.-China relationship. The U.S. isn’t very happy with China’s “get rich but keep your mouth shut” policy. China thinks the U.S. should stop poking its self-righteous nose into China’s internal affairs. Human rights was one of the issues that the upcoming dialogue would be skirting when, all of a sudden, it couldn’t be ignored or evaded.
What to do about Chen? Before the gates swung open, Washington was contacted on a secure phone. Washington said, “Let him in.” National interest often has to trump humanitarian concerns, but Chen was no easy-to-brush-off unknown. Chen (and his family) had been persecuted because Chen had demanded, loudly, that Chinese officials adhere to Chinese law. After years of detention, his only hope seemed to lay in petitioning the U.S. for asylum. This is entirely understandable. A social reformer can’t do much good when he can’t leave his own house. Of course, he usually can't do much after he's accepted for asylum either.
Chen’s escape took incredible courage and determination. Once he was safe, however, he seems to have suffered an anticipatory form of emigrés’ remorse. This predisposed him, no doubt, to trust China’s initial promises, which were not issued as a public statement. Perhaps American officials were also too trusting for reasons of their own (as in: getting rid of this guy), but something else forced Chen to leave the Embassy. He apparently needed hospital care. Still, embassy staffers have come under heavy criticism for being compliant, credulous or for (possibly) encouraging him to leave. Did they scheme to salvage the Dialogue by throwing Chen to the dragons? No one's going to admit to that any time soon. Be that as it may, once Chen was back in China proper, a new set of worries and regrets (well described elsewhere) set in. Pretty soon he was pleading with American senators over a cell phone. At this turn of events, initially sympathetic embassy staffers were probably shaking their heads and thinking, “What the hell does this guy want?”
On the human level, Chen’s plight and vacillation are entirely convincing and merit considerable sympathy, unless he’s to be admired for brilliantly choreographing everything to his own advantage. Meanwhile, the whole world was watching. Two powerful, very different countries needed to devise a face-saving way to resolve the crisis. The U.S. couldn’t allow Chen to be abused. China had no hope of allowing him to disappear into unwatched obscurity.
The Face-Saving Formula
The resolution came with a very brief public announcement from the highest level of Chinese officialdom: Chen, like any other Chinese citizen, was free to study abroad. The U.S. announced that a visa would be issued without delay, should he (and his wife) apply. One can assume that a good amount of coordination lay behind these statements, and why not? If Chen goes to the U.S., he will cease to be a thorn in China’s side, and the U.S. will have reinforced its positive image as a champion of human rights.
And meanwhile the Dialogue was not sidetracked.
After enduring aka facilitating high level visits, especially those involving the President or the Secretary of State or important senators, an embassy staff typically gets together for what is called a “wheels up party.” Every American, from Ambassador all the way down to the juniormost officer, is giddy with exhaustion and relief. It was a success—yahoo!—and it’s over—hurrah! I bet the “wheels up party” in Beijing last week was a doozy.
But Chen isn’t in the U.S. yet.