In March of last year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (my former boss), in testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee, feared we were “losing an information war” to the Chinese, Russians and al Jazeera. She was certainly right that the United States faces greater competition from other nations, non-governmental entities and social actors who were aggressively challenging the U.S. narrative of global events and advancing alternative frames. Despite being the world’s only superpower – which means the United States has an interest in every corner of the world but also that every global citizen has an opinion on U.S. policy – our relative advantage had certainly diminished since the end of the Cold War. On balance, the rise of emerging powers like China, Russia, Turkey, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Iran and South Africa is positive, offering opportunities for cooperation and collaboration. But these countries will challenge U.S. leadership as well.
However, we are not losing this information war. Events of the past week reinforce why, as the United States clearly and compellingly defended universal standards of human rights in the case of Chen Guangcheng, a self-taught lawyer who had escaped house arrest and found his way to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. China, an emerging power and strategic competitor, suffered a serious loss in global perception.
People have come to admire China as they see its extraordinary economic performance and learn more about China through its Confucius Centers and media like Xinhua. They marveled at the Beijing Olympics. But they have also been exposed to the other side of China, a rising but insecure power that is afraid of its own people and routinely and too often ruthlessly violates universal rights including freedom of expression, assembly and the press.
Chen Guangcheng wanted to do something revolutionary. As an activist, he wanted to remain in China, to be free of government intimidation; study what and where he wanted; and continue to challenge government policies in an open and civil society. The United States advocated on his behalf, not just through our diplomats in Beijing but also thanks to technology with his dramatic participation in a (staged and shrill but nonetheless effective) Congressional hearing. When that negotiated arrangement with the Chinese government collapsed, the United States rapidly opened the door for Chen to travel and study in the United States. The Chinese government reluctantly agreed if only to move the issue off the global stage.
In the Middle East, while surviving autocrats take comfort in the transactional “ask no questions” nature of Chinese foreign policy, as Professor Marc Lynch at GW’s Elliott School describes in his new book Arab Uprising, an increasingly expanded and empowered public sphere is acutely aware of regional developments and what major players are or are not doing. The United States will be challenged even as it has thrown its rhetoric and actions (Bahrain and Palestine notable exceptions) behind change, most recently regarding Syria. Going forward, U.S. policies will face increasingly strong head winds. It will be challenged to back its rhetoric with appropriate actions that reflect values, not just interests. Not everyone will be happy with the U.S. posture on a particular issue of importance, but it is now China and Russia (which has its own problems with protests) that are the status quo powers, providing political cover for the Assad regime.
There is more than one side of history. In world events, it sometimes takes time to determine which is side is “right.” The United States does not have the influence in the world it once did – that world no longer exists – but it is better positioned and competing more effectively than may be realized. Actions ultimately do speak louder than words. What the United States did last week in defending the universal rights of Chen Guangcheng spoke volumes.