Striking Balance

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by Joshua Foust on 2/22/2012 · 6 comments

The New York Times reports on Germany’s attempt to balance its business interests with a concern for human rights in Central Asia:

Mrs. Merkel has no illusions about how [Kazakhstan] is governed. But German industry fears its near total dependence on China for the rare earth metals needed in high-tech manufacturing for products like solar panels and electrical car engines. China controls 97 percent of rare earth production and supplies 90 percent of Europe’s needs. Its decision in 2010 to reduce such exports prompted German industry to search for alternative sources, quickly…

Yet as a whole, human rights experts say the European Union is allowing its values to be increasingly undermined by the rise of China. With the euro crisis, Europe is weakening and becoming dependent on Chinese investments, say analysts. That makes European officials wary about being too outspoken.

“Business should be, as much as civil society, interested in governance on the rule of law, transparency and accountability,” said Ms. Aidakulova and Mr. Artemyev of the Soros Foundation. “This sets the environment in which business interests will be effectively protected.”

As a second step, Western governments should insist on more stringent social and environmental conditions for mining rare earths and other raw materials when they conclude the partnership accords with countries like Kazakhstan.

This is an interesting tension, one that has never quite been resolved in the conduct of international affairs. I tried to raise this fundamental tension in my column this week for PBS and came away without any solid answer.

It’s rare for a leader to win the support of her citizenry by subordinating their interests to the human rights of people living abroad. Consider, in an American context, Jimmy Carter’s decision to boycott the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. President Carter did this to protest the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan the previous year, part of his broad push to emphasize the promotion of human rights as an American interest. It was also one of the most bitterly controversial decisions he made, and ultimately contributed to his inability to secure a second term in the White House.

U.S. policy makers are facing a choice in Central Asia that is very similar to Chancellor Merkel’s. The U.S. decision to reengage with the government of Uzbekistan has been controversial, and has sparked condemnations from the same human rights groups that protest Merkel’s decision. Such condemnations, however, raise a very basic question: What can be done? One hears, routinely, from rights activists that the U.S. always has a choice, and that is has leverage, but one hears very rarely what those choices are or what that leverage is.

And around we go.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Brad Pierce February 24, 2012 at 3:24 pm

Germany is basically jealous for what China is doing and she can’t.
We are undertaking a big shift in global power and the world order is changing towards the East. Nobody knows if this change will be for the best or not. Anyway a change is needed. USA hegemony has proven itself useless and inadequate.

Nathan Hamm February 24, 2012 at 5:23 pm

Germany’s a lady? And why do you leave links to spammy Spanish websites in your comments? We’ve got standards, you know.

brisket February 25, 2012 at 12:42 am

Germany is neuter in German, but feminine in Spanish. So there you have that.

Yomuslug February 27, 2012 at 12:41 am

It is not that any sort of hegemony is either “good” or “bad”, from the risk management theory perspective it is simply highly risky because a mono-polar world is prone to quicker corruption not providing for competition and thus missing overall systemic improvement through knowledge evolution and exchange as well as an efficient distribution of resources. Existence of USSR with its alternative ideology and ambitions could indeed be, at least in some sense, bad for the soviet people but it was a good stimulus for the Western elite to ensure that they have a happy middle class.

Who knows, had the ‘scary soviet giant’ not disappeared, maybe the West would have been more motivated to evolve and find some better technological and policy solutions for the problem of demographic growth and everything connected thereof (e.g. in education, healthcare, finance, better governance in business etc.).

Yomuslug February 27, 2012 at 12:55 am

Also, this is very funny to see how the Western an Eastern elite still remain charmed (and actually limited) by the past centuries’ belief of ‘resource supply’ as a key solution for economy. For the next few year, maybe, but for a mid to long term prospective this would be a tremendously shortsighted vision! It is of course explainable because ANY politician’s agenda has an extremely short ‘investment horizon’, limited lifespan and a shockingly brief attention span to common priorities. The mentioned priorities should definitely be very much demography and peace centered for, otherwise, the whole world wil keep stepping on the same rake every hundred years or so.

Yomuslug February 27, 2012 at 1:10 am

I should add that demography, technology, and peace priorities should be not just long term, they should obviously be eternal and universal.

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