Is it (only) the economy, (stupid)?
Not long ago, when an important Western politician visited a developing country, topics such as a lack of human rights, democracy and freedom generally topped the agenda before discussion turned to security issues, conditions of economic cooperation and trade rules. After talks on these initial problems – which were always conducted in a diplomatic tone – discussions were directed toward practical matters.
However, after the emergence of the last worldwide recession in 2008, this general attitude changed and – as if all the other problems had been successfully solved – issues related to trade and commerce began to become the most important topics, especially in bilateral relations. Not long ago, Chancellor Angela Merkel visited China with a large delegation for new business contracts and a renewed demand for China’s backing in the euro crisis. It was understood that talks were conducted mainly on the abuse of trade rules. In contrast to the former tradition, there was no detailed discussion on the abuse of human rights. It was said the Chinese authorities merely made a few promises on the issue.
The German media then strongly criticized Merkel’s approach, which was defined as “first develop trade and investment relations, then discuss human rights issues.” The chancellor might not be the only politician in troubled Europe who thinks that political problems created by the eurozone crisis are more important now than the conflict of opinion between them and some important developing countries on human rights, democracy and freedom, especially when a meaningful contribution is expected from those countries for the salvation of the eurozone.
In the middle of a serious economic, social and political crisis, this might be partly tolerated as a practical and pragmatic approach. However, what history will say is more important; will it justify this approach or condemn it is a big political mistake? Similar mistakes destroyed peace and prosperity twice in Europe, as well as other parts of the world in the last century.
Europe and maybe even the United States now need China’s economic support to prevent a second recession, although it is unclear whether this support will be big enough to achieve that. However, a problem-free Western world is also necessary for the continuation of China’s economic advancement. This means that it is not rational to give unnecessary concessions – of either the economic or political kind – for any reason on principles that were shaped after long struggles and sacrifices through the centuries; this doesn’t apply just to China, but to every country which has no respect for human rights.
The U.S. backed antidemocratic regimes in Latin America for years to weaken the rising sympathy for communism among the region’s poor people and some of the intellectual elite and to defend American economic and political interests, but this policy created more headaches for American administrations. That attitude has changed recently, but too late to restore political relations with some countries in the region.
Last but not least, as H.G. Wells, an important historian and one of the most famous pioneers of science fiction, once said, there is no guarantee that democratic systems will continue in the small part of the world where they are used. If the politicians in those countries don’t take the step to defend democratic principles, then who will?