Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is more attuned to popular political winds than President Obama, and her speaking out on Internet freedom is welcome across the political spectrum. Nonetheless, there are other forces at play. Her motives aren’t pure, not startling in a politician, but bear examination.
Her recent speech favoring Internet freedom, in the wake of Google’s resistance to Chinese Internet repression and hacking, is in stark contrast to the Obama administration’s ignoring human rights to now, including in Iran where internal regime change possibly offers a best hope for averting catastrophe. Her speech is hoped to really signal a turn.
Importantly, Sec. Clinton made it clear that the Obama Administration is ready to commit significant resources to this effort. She said that, over the next year, the State Department plans to work with others to establish a standing effort to promote technology and will invite technologists to help advance the cause through a new “innovation competition” that will promote circumvention technologies and other technologies of freedom. Sec. Clinton also challenged private companies to stand up to censorship globally and challenge foreign governments when they demand controls on the free flow of information or digital technology.
We haven’t heard any support yet directly from President Obama. In light of her diminished bulb within his administration, is Hillary trying to brighten it and to position herself for his possible 2012 implosion?
Other forces at play include riding the positive publicity that Google received for its resistance to Chinese muzzling of the Internet, that seems more aimed at helping Google to compete elsewhere, and hacking into Western companies’ software codes, which threatens their future profits. (See my previous post.)
Another factor at play is that the Obama administration is more protectionist than prior administrations, a sop to his labor union backers. Protectionism is a recurring populist theme. But, Obama is still teetering as US multinational companies, who have also contributed heavily to gain entre to his chambers, favor continuing free trade policies. Still, for example in Vietnam, where Western investment is critical to regime stability, "investors have largely avoided [it] over the past year as reform momentum stalls." The Wall Street Journal notes the wider arena: “It's been said that Vietnam aims to copy China's economic development model. Trying to frighten foreign investors into line, a la Beijing and Rio Tinto [Brazil], isn't a lesson worth copying, especially for a poor country trying to join the league of middle-income nations.” Using “human rights” leverage to increase US multinationals’ access to less fettered investing may be more a pressure tactic to open markets than to open minds. The Obama administration gains support from the unions and big business by now highlighting Internet freedom concerns.
More attention to Internet freedom, also, serves to ameliorate scathing criticism from such needed major media players as the Washington Post, which editorialized on December 31, 2009 about increased repression in China and Vietnam:
Some Vietnam analysts believe the government's crackdown is intended to set the stage for a ruling party congress scheduled for 2011. Yet surely Vietnam, like China, has taken note of the Obama administration's relaxed attitude toward supporting dissidents and its public proclamations that human rights issues must be balanced against other interests. While the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam has criticized the crackdown, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said nothing in public about the arrests when she met Vietnam's foreign minister in October. Instead she focused attention on the "tenfold" increase in bilateral trade she said had taken place since 2001.
That trade boom makes Vietnam sensitive to Western criticism of its human rights record. So the staging of trials of pro-democracy activists during the holiday season is almost certainly not a coincidence. The tactic just might be working: A State Department spokesman said Wednesday that no public statement had been made about Mr. Kim's case, because "no one asked." He then e-mailed us a statement saying "the United States is disappointed in the results of the trial" and noting that Mr. Kim's case was among those raised during a U.S.-Vietnam dialogue on human rights in November. No doubt Hanoi regards such talk as perfunctory; certainly, the Obama administration has done nothing that would suggest otherwise.
The Obama administration has demonstrated that foreign policy is secondary to its radical domestic priorities, and thus is more flexible in tamping down concerns about its fundamental fecklessness in facing up to threats abroad. Hillary Clinton’s speech is therefore an easy sop.
OK, all said aside, if the Obama administration actually follows through with more than words, energetically, that is very welcome despite ulterior motivations. As Human Rights Watch just reported, "Rights-respecting governments should speak up to protect peaceful activists and rights defenders in Vietnam and insist that the government abide by its international commitments," Adams [Asia director] said. "Donors have been far too quiet about rights in recent years, but Vietnamese activists say that they will never succeed without consistent support from influential governments." The same goes for elsewhere among despotic regimes.
China has rejected Hillary’s appeal to more openness, calling it “information imperialism.” Russia, Vietnam, Iran, Arab states, Venezuela, Bolivia express similar scorn.
Will the Obama administration actually show real spine on Internet freedom, or continue on its path of hollow words. Despots are betting on the latter.
Tracked: Jan 23, 13:50