THE debate that swirled around renewing China's Most Favored Nation trade status may have taught President Clinton this brutal lesson about diplomacy: the more loudly you say your actions in the world are based on principle, the more likely it is that you'll eventually have to eat your words in a crow casserole.
Interaction between nations inevitably requires compromise, says Thomas Carothers, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Practical positions can be relatively easily fudged; principles tend to look more like moral absolutes.
``If you lead rhetorically with your principles, inevitably you look like a hypocrite,'' says Mr. Carothers, who co-leads a project studying ways of promoting worldwide democracy.
That's a problem that has dogged the Clinton foreign policy team. From Haiti to China, with Bosnia thrown in between, it has been criticized for voicing high-sounding rhetoric and then not backing up the rhetoric with action. Human rights is exhibit No. 1. Human rights activists at first thought Mr. Clinton was another President Carter, who made the promotion of rights worldwide a centerpiece.
Early on in his administration Clinton officials were enthusiastic participants at a World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna. They spoke forcefully about the traditional neglect of women's rights around the world. They said the Bush administration policy toward China consisted of ``coddling'' tyrants who abused dissidents.
Overall, Bill Schulz, US director of Amnesty International, says he gives Clinton ``a reasonably high grade on the rhetoric, but a mixed to low grade on action.''
It is not just the obvious cases such as China or the continued return of boat people fleeing Haiti that concern Mr. Schulz. He points to Turkey, where he says the administration is shrinking from confronting a longtime ally, even as evidence mounts of Turkish abuse of its Kurdish population.
President Carter, for all the nagging moralism he displayed as chief executive, really made a difference in some parts of the world, analysts claim. His insistence on human rights in Latin America helped build a network of indigenous rights organizations that flourish today. When Carter took office many Latin American nations were ruled by military dictatorships. Today most are democracies - albeit many of them shaky ones.
``A pro-human rights, pro-democracy approach is very important,'' argues Douglas Payne, director of hemispheric studies at Freedom House. Still, such an agenda may have to be pushed carefully, even for a nation that has long prided itself on being a light of freedom for the rest of the world.
The spread of democracy is a principle Clinton officials have mentioned as a core theme of their dealings with the world. But voicing it risks being both banal and dangerous, according to Carothers. After a decade of explosive growth in democracy, inevitable backlash could lead to antidemocratic gains in Eastern Europe and other parts of the world in coming years. Clinton should beware rhetorically taking responsibility for democracy in the world at an ebb tide in its fortunes, the Carnegie analyst says.