There are a lot of positive things to be said about President Obama's speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. As others have pointed out, it makes sound arguments about the need to use force at times for the purpose of maintaining peace, the limits of non-violence for dealing with the world's worst regimes, and the need for the nations of the world to think seriously about the case for hard-hitting sanctions if they want to avoid having to go war. All in all, it was a more nuanced speech that looks to be more in line than previous Obama speeches with traditional American statecraft, and even with speeches by his predecessor, the much maligned George W. Bush.
That said, there was a particularly sophistic element to the speech when it came to human rights and America's concern with promoting them. To quote the president:
In light of the Cultural Revolution's horrors, Nixon's meeting with Mao appeared inexcusable -- and yet it surely helped set China on a path where millions of its citizens have been lifted from poverty and connected to open societies. Pope John Paul's engagement with Poland created space not just for the Catholic Church, but for labor leaders like Lech Walesa. Ronald Reagan's efforts on arms control and embrace of perestroika not only improved relations with the Soviet Union, but empowered dissidents throughout Eastern Europe. There's no simple formula here. But we must try as best we can to balance isolation and engagement, pressure and incentives, so that human rights and dignity are advanced over time.
Put simply, this is a way of saying that "engagement" rather than "confrontation" is the best means for obtaining real liberalizing reforms from governments that treat their people as subjects rather than citizens. In other words, while many from both parties complain about Barak Obama's seeming lack of concern over human rights in places like Burma, China, and Iran, they've got it wrong; really, his policy of engagement and largely silence on these issues, as his examples from recent history show, is in fact the best tool for moving the reform ball forward.
The problem is, his examples are either simply wrong or, at best, dubious.
Nixon's engagement with China did not open the door for reforms. Nixon and Kissinger could have cared less, and it was only the post-Mao leadership that saw that freeing up China's internal market could help rebuild the country from the multiple disasters that Mao had bestowed up the Chinese. That was a decision they would have taken regardless of whether Nixon had made his way to Beijing or not. It is true, of course, that China's economic engagement with the world has led to hundreds of millions of Chinese being pulled out of poverty. No small matter. But that same engagement has not succeeded in breaking one party rule there or greatly expanded the political and religious freedoms that supposedly were to follow from China's economic liberalization.
More ludicrous is the statement that "Pope John Paul's engagement with Poland created space not just for the Catholic Church, but for labor leaders like Lech Walesa." It would be a great surprise to the late, great pontiff to hear his policy described as such. John Paul's stratagem was from the very beginning precisely to go over the heads of the Polish government and speak directly to the Poles-which he did. He didn't think his dealings with the Polish government were anything but a necessary expedient and certainly not a path to greater Polish liberty. The pope was too hard-headed to think otherwise, having lived under two different totalitarian regimes. Nor, of course, were the Polish communists fooled by what the pope was up to, which is one reason that theories that Warsaw and Moscow were behind the assassination attempt on the pope will not go away.
And, finally, there is the liberal trope that it was Ronald Reagan's "dovish side" that was key to empowering dissidents, and bringing both the Soviet state and the Cold War to an end. But left unmentioned is the arms build-up that preceded his engagement, the resulting internal crisis of confidence within the Soviet Union leadership, and their turn to Gorbachev as a last desperate effort to reform the system and save it. A bet they and he lost. Reagan set U.S. policy on a course of doing nothing to prevent that collapse from playing out. And there were a lot measures put in place-like the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, export control regimes, military successes in Central America and Afghanistan, and hard-hitting rhetoric from Reagan himself--that had far more to do with bringing the Soviet regime to an end than "engagement."
Obama is careful to leave himself wiggle room by stating that "There's no simple formula here." No, indeed. As the Reagan and Pope John Paul examples suggest, and the policy of engaging with China actually perversely confirms, creating a dynamic for liberalizing reforms is often a serious, multifaceted task of statesmanship. To date, the Obama effort has been anything but.
Gary Schmitt is director of AEI's program on advanced strategic studies.