What's right in this picture? A Chinese dissident in US custody

Pleas for US help like those from dissident Chen in China can wear down a superpower trying to reorient itself. Yet foreigners still look to American for moral leadership. A mature democracy should know how to resolve such dilemmas.

www.ChinaAid.org/AP Photo
This undated photo shows blind Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng with his son and wife in Shandong province. Chen made a surprise escape from house arrest on April 22 into what activists say is the protection of US diplomats in Beijing.

Despite a perception that it is headed toward decline, America is constantly reminded of what makes it strong. The latest example comes from China, where a prominent dissident, Chen Guangcheng, sought refuge in the custody of the US Embassy in Beijing.

Mr. Chen is a blind, self-taught lawyer who was being punished for exposing the practice of forced abortion and sterilization. He was able to escape from his well-guarded house detention and secretly travel to the embassy, a place that most represents a beacon of freedom and human rights in China.

For people like Chen who plead for US support or protection, it is not the giant US economy or its military that draws them. Rather, it is the moral attraction of America’s ideals. What values do China, Russia, or many big powers stand for?

As President Obama has said: “America’s interests are not hostile to peoples’ hopes; they’re essential to them.” His words echo Thomas Paine’s line that “the cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind.”

During the Arab Spring in 2011, Muslims who would normally spout anti-American slogans beseeched Mr. Obama to speak out or act on their behalf. When he finally demanded an “immediate” transition to democracy in Egypt, the crowd in Cairo’s Tahrir Square broke into applause. In Libya, with anti-Qaddafi rebels in Benghazi about to be slaughtered, a child held up a sign that read “Mama Clinton, please stop the bleeding.”

The 2011 Japanese earthquake, like one in Pakistan or the tsunami in Indonesia, saw a welcome reception of immediate assistance from the ever-ready US military. Uganda recently received assistance to track down Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army. The democracies around China are now seeking a closer alliance with the United States to protect themselves from Chinese aggression.

These recent cases showing an America much in demand, however, come as the country appears to be looking inward, slashing its defense budget, and attempting to reconcile sharp political divisions. Helping people like Chen, or whole countries like Libya, can easily conflict with domestic goals or specific foreign-policy interests, such as the nuclear defanging of Iran and North Korea.

Somehow America needs to arrive at a way to balance each weighty call of humanity with its own call to heal itself, especially a frail economy. The easiest solution in such times, as presidents such as Obama and Reagan have pointed out, is to keep the US as a model for how a democracy or a free market should be run. This “shining city on a hill” approach has deep roots.

And two presidents, Washington and Eisenhower, warned Americans not to become entangled in other countries’ affairs. Wars have a way of draining resources and eroding American values, such as the internment of Japanese-Americans or the killing of civilians by soldiers in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Still, since 1898, the US has been involved in 26 foreign interventions. Achieving a balance of doing too much with not doing enough seems like an endless dialogue.

Foreign affairs may not draw much attention during the 2012 election campaign. Even within the Democratic and Republican parties, there are divisions over how much the US should respond to foreign calls for help. Ron Paul, for instance, differs sharply from Mitt Romney on foreign affairs.

One side might ask, Wouldn’t China help the US economy if Chen were turned over to Chinese officials? The other would argue that the US would violate its core principles and lose allies in doing so.

Knowing when to be the 911 nation for the world requires a mature political process. Yet serious debate is too often replaced by political pea-shooting simply for domestic advantage. The Chens of the world deserve thoughtful and coherent responses from America.

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