WASHINGTON -- Two Octobers ago, the Dalai Lama received the Congressional Gold Medal, one of America's highest civilian honors, in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. Speaker Nancy Pelosi talked of a "special relationship between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the United States." Said Sen. Mitch McConnell: "We have reached out in solidarity to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people, and the Chinese government needs to know that we will continue to do so." President George W. Bush urged Chinese leaders "to welcome the Dalai Lama to China. They will find this good man to be a man of peace and reconciliation."
This October, on a scheduled visit to the United States, the Dalai Lama will not be welcomed at the White House. Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett was recently dispatched to Dharamsala -- the Dalai Lama's place of exile in northern India -- to gently deliver the message. The Tibetans took the news, as usual, nonviolently. "A lot of nations are adopting a policy of appeasement (toward China)," observed Samdhong Rinpoche, prime minister of Tibet's government-in-exile. "I understand why Obama is not meeting with the Dalai Lama before his Chinese trip. It is common sense. Obama should not irritate the Chinese leadership."
The Obama administration has its diplomatic reasons. After the uprisings of 2008, the Chinese government is particularly sensitive on the topic of Tibet. China's President Hu Jintao is a guest in the United States this week. And administration officials hint that Obama will eventually meet with the Dalai Lama, following the president's own visit to China in November.
Yet between the gold medal and the cold shoulder, a large diplomatic signal is being sent.
It is not that Obama is completely unwilling to anger the Chinese. Earlier this month he imposed a 35 percent tariff on tire imports from China, leading to talk of a trade war. The head of the United Steelworkers said the president was willing to "put himself in the line of fire for the jobs of U.S. workers." But Obama is clearly less willing to put himself in the diplomatic line of fire for other, less tangibly political reasons.
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?
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