It may seem curious to foreigners - and even to some Americans - that the United States Congress would approve most-favored-nation trade status for China and at the same time reverse long-standing US policy and establish secondary boycotts against Iran, Libya, and Cuba.
China has thwarted US foreign policy in many ways. It permits egregious violations of intellectual-property rights. It exports nuclear technology and missiles. It violates human rights. Yet the US wants to engage.
US law seeks to penalize foreigners who do business in Iran, Libya, and Cuba by denying them visas and threatening them with lawsuits. The effects are felt particularly by firms and individuals in Canada and Western Europe. No such penalties await those who do business in China.
The reasons are clear. China represents an enormous market. Its status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council requires that other nations, including the US, maintain diplomatic communication.
American business executives and members of Congress were outraged in the 1960s and '70s when Arab countries boycotted those who were doing business in Israel. Such secondary boycotts violate the basic laws of international free trade. Yet today Washington unilaterally applies this same type of boycott.
Proponents of the legislation insist that the cases are different: The Arab boycott was applied against Israel in an effort to destroy the Jewish state; current US measures against Iran and Libya are justified because these rogue states support international terrorism; measures against Cuba are meant to protect the property rights of US citizens.
The US does have genuine grievances against each of these states: Iran opposes the Middle East peace process and gives strong support to movements attacking Israel; Libya refuses to give up those responsible for destroying PanAm Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988; Cuba, in addition to its expropriation of American property, is the last bastion of international communism.
Whatever Washington's concerns may be, however, is this legislation a proper response? The new laws have created serious problems with close allies such as Canada, Britain, and Germany. Precedents are being established that others can use against the US. There is little evidence that the measures will alter the behavior of targeted states.
But these are not arguments that bother members of Congress with their eyes on elections. Unlike the case of China, diplomatic engagement is not an option. The powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee has pressed hard for the measures against Iran; that country has been demonized to the extent that Tehran is initially blamed for every terrorist incident - including Oklahoma City. Recollection of the Iran-contra affair inhibits contact.
The families of the victims of Lockerbie will strongly oppose any relaxation in measures against Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi until he gives up those responsible for the terrorist act. And the strong Cuban-exile communities in several states have a powerful voice, making any contact with Havana political suicide. Beyond that, many in Congress take delight in causing discomfort to allies whom they believe to be insufficiently supportive of US objectives.
The US is likely to be charged with trade violations before the new World Trade Organization. Multinational action, however, will be of little concern to most Americans, who prefer to use international organizations only when it suits their purpose.
Continued engagement with China may resolve some issues. Regrettably, the contradictory path chosen for Iran, Libya, and Cuba serves only to create new ones.
*David D. Newsom, former undersecretary of state, is Cumming Memorial Professor of International Affairs at the University of Virginia.