EDITORIAL: Condoleezza passes muster – for now

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But China and democracy are both touchy issues for some Asean members and could frustrate Rice’s upcoming trip to Asia

Condoleezza Rice’s diplomatic panache and intellectual flair took Europe by storm on her first trip abroad as the new US secretary of state. European media reports were favourable. Rice was received well, what with her personal charm and forthright answers. Presenting the new face of American diplomacy, her initial foray onto the international stage can be deemed a remarkable success. Her visit to France was one of her most productive, as she was able to mend fences with a country more opposed to the Iraqi War than almost any other. It was France, after all, that spoke out against the US before the UN Security Council.

Certainly, with her encyclopaedic knowledge of Europe and Russia, she is quite different from her immediate predecessor, a career military general. As a woman, she is also different from former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, even though both ladies started out in academia.

Of course, Rice continues to deliver a strong and forceful message about US policy. She went to Europe on a mission to drum up greater support for both a post-election Iraq and the peace process in the Middle East.

Both of these issues could be worked out without too much difficulty, because after all, the US and Europe have always cooperated with each other in the end, no matter how serious their disagreements may have been.

Of even greater interest than European relations, though, is American policy towards Iran’s allegedly peaceful nuclear programme and the arms-sale embargo against China.

On the former issue, Europe has maintained hope that its own dealings with Tehran would be sufficient to denuclearise it, but Washington is not satisfied and wants to see a total suspension of that country’s nuclear-weapons programme. Rice made it clear in London that a military assault on Iran was not on the agenda, adding darkly “at this point in time”. Naturally, no one can know what President Bush’s attitude will be in the future.

But the issue of lifting the embargo on sales of arms to China is more controversial. In place for 15 years now, the embargo is a non-starter, because of the booming economic ties between China and Europe. Europe of late has changed its attitude in regard to human rights in China.

Of course, back when China was a force to be reckoned with, the European nations banged hard on China. But they seem less critical and more willing to turn a blind eye these days. And so does the US. In fact, US-Chinese relations are now very good.

In July Rice will travel to Asia and attend the Asean meeting of foreign ministers scheduled for that time in Kuala Lumpur. It remains to be seen if she can win over her Asian counterparts, but her current emphasis on the use of greater multilateral diplomatic efforts and alliance-building does indeed augur well for our region.

At least it’s a far cry from all the tough talk that was emanating from her office when she served her president as national security adviser.

The Asian tsunami has actually proved to be a blessing in disguise for the US, because a potential exists to turn a crisis into an excellent opportunity for enhancing its humanitarian role throughout the affected areas. Her presence at the Asean summit will enable her to reconfirm the US commitment to the region.

But it remains to be seen how Rice will handle issues related to the spread of freedom and democracy in Southeast Asia. Most Asean members may be democratic in name, but they are certainly not free in practice, actually ruled by autocratic leaders with no intention of yielding any of their power. Thus she will face a huge dilemma concerning how to – or even whether she should – raise issues that are so often considered taboo regionally.

Published on February 12, 2005

The Nation

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