Secretary of State John Kerry's car, Beijing, April 2013. CREDIT: U.S. State Dept./Alison Anzalone/Public Domain.

This article first appeared on the Ethics & International Affairs blog.

The U.S. Global Engagement program has opened its second survey on U.S. foreign policy, and this one has an emphasis on assessing the relative ranking of values and support for democracy within the respondent's overall calculus. One of the complaints that the survey has been drawing, based on reactions on social media, is the inflexibility of some of the questions, which are framed in binary yes/no format. I understand the frustration—because in real life, choices are often gradations along shades of gray—but there is method in this madness. One of the goals is to assess where the respondents fall when forced to deal with competing imperatives.

It is all well and good for someone to proclaim a preference for buying goods from a non-abusive producer. But if that will exact a monetary or policy cost, how strong is that commitment? In other words, when Americans indicate that values and ethics matter, to what extent do they matter? And what happens when one ethical demand is contradicted by another?

My line of thinking was prompted by reading reports that U.S. school districts are facing a choice between accepting embargoes on goods like Thinkpads and Chromebooks sourced from China, where they may have been assembled with slave or prisoner labor, especially by the persecuted Uyghers—or not being able to offer educational services particularly to low-income and disadvantaged children. The Department of Commerce has noted, "we should all agree that American school children should not be using computers from China that were produced from forced labor." But, as the Daily Mail reports:

School districts are pleading with the Trump administration to resolve the issue, saying that distance learning without laptops will amount to no learning for some of the country´s most vulnerable students.

'It’s a tough one because I'm not condoning child slave labor for computers, but can we not hurt more children in the process?' said Matt Bartenhagen, IT director for Williston Public Schools in North Dakota, a district of 4,600 waiting on an order for 2,000 Lenovo Chromebooks.

As as Lara Hussain, an IT director for the Denver Public Schools district, points out, "We were promised devices. Our students need devices. And as a result of not receiving devices we will have students starting the school year unable to participate. It´s unconscionable."

Similarly, as Michael Dennis and Anand Toprani point out, the U.S. relationship with China must be based on "competition and cooperation rather than confrontation." This requires balancing competing demands and even ethical frameworks; to the extent that we embrace an approach defined by fighting global problems, other demands may have to give ground. As they argue:

Washington should not ignore the problems arising from China's egregious handling of Hong Kong or the abominations committed against the Uighurs, but Americans are not going to war for any of these causes. Nor should such actions prevent both countries from seeking cooperation when their interests align, as with climate change or pandemic prevention. 

. . .  Even in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, we can see that the inordinate investment in biological weapons research and chemical warfare during the Cold War has yielded a paltry dividend for a nation that cannot manufacture N95 masks nor have military MOPP (Mission Oriented Protective Posture) suits found use in hospitals forced to reuse Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Like it or not, we will require Chinese assistance in manufacturing sufficient quantities of PPE and, hopefully, vaccines—much like we will need China’s cooperation in upscaling the production of green technologies to reduce humanity’s carbon footprint.

So I understand the frustration of the survey-takers, but the goal is to break out of the older mindset, as epitomized during the 1990s by the Clinton administration, that "we do not have to choose" between competing options, or by the Bush administration in the 2000s arguing that our values and our interests are one. We will have to choose, and we will have to choose between competing sets of both interests and values. The current dilemmas with China–over human rights, the Uyghers, Hong Kong, PPE and vaccines for the pandemic, or computers for schoolingall make that abundantly clear.

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