In great power politics, morality often gets its hair mussed. Every president needs diplomatic maneuvering room. But the rebuff of the Dalai Lama is part of a pattern. Hillary Clinton has argued that pressing China on human rights "can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis" -- a statement that left Amnesty International "shocked and extremely disappointed." Support for Iranian democrats has been hesitant. Overtures to repressive governments in Iran, Cuba, North Korea, Venezuela, Syria and Egypt have generally ignored the struggles of dissidents and prisoners in those nations. So far, the Obama era is hardly a high point of human rights solidarity.
Those who donate to Amnesty International and put "Free Tibet" stickers on their Volvos often assume these commitments are served by supporting liberal politicians. But it really depends. On human rights, modern liberalism is a house divided. In a recent, brilliant essay in The New Republic, Richard Just describes the "contradictory impulses of liberal foreign policy: the opposition to imperialism and the devotion to human rights. If liberals view anti-imperialism as their primary philosophical commitment, then they will be reluctant to meddle in the affairs of other countries, even when they are ruled by authoritarian governments ... that abuse their own people. But if liberalism's primary commitment is to human rights, then liberals will be willing to judge, to oppose, and even to undermine such governments."
During the Cold War, Just argues, these impulses were united in opposition to pro-American despots such as Chile's Augusto Pinochet. "But history does not always present such convenient circumstances; and since the end of the Cold War, every time the United States has undertaken a humanitarian intervention -- or, as in Afghanistan and Iraq, interventions with humanitarian implications -- this fundamental split has, in one form or another, returned to the center of the liberal debate."
This split is now evident within the Obama administration. It includes some very principled, liberal defenders of human rights such as U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and National Security Council staffer Samantha Power. But it seems dominated, for the moment, by those who consider the human rights enterprise as morally arrogant and an obstacle to mature diplomacy.
Which raises the question: What is left of foreign policy liberalism when a belief in liberty is removed?