Two Crises

January 14, 2010 Topic: CyberwarHumanitarian InterventionSecurity Region: Americas

Two Crises

The disaster in Haiti requires decisive, American-led multilateral action. China’s Internet crackdown, on the other hand, demands caution.

As dramatic and urgent as the Haiti calamity may be, it is hardly unprecedented. America has repeatedly rushed aid abroad, whether it was to Japan in the aftermath of the 1923 Yokohama tsunami or the 2004 Asian tsunami that killed over 200,000 individuals. But the earthquake in Haiti, which has killed over 100,000 people, provides a reminder for the Obama administration of how quickly its focus on foreign-policy problems such as Afghanistan or Iraq can be diverted by a sudden crisis abroad. Indeed, even as the administration rushes aid to Haiti, another problem is coming to the fore that could test America's relationship with China. In both the cases of Haiti and China, however, America could be facing a turning point that could lead to a positive outcome.

Haiti has been a basket case for decades. A political and economic disaster, it has plagued successive American administrations. The Clinton administration suffered a black eye in Haiti when it deployed American military power to return Jean-Baptiste Aristide to power. Aristide ended up going into exile and Haiti suffered further economic immiseration. Now Bill Clinton is a United Nations special envoy to Haiti. President Obama should tap Clinton to spearhead the American effort to rebuild the country. Perhaps the utter devastation of the Caribbean island can be used to make a fresh start. Haiti's track record hardly provides much cause for optimism, but it would be foolish not to try. This could be the crisis that also allows Clinton to refurbish his own reputation, which suffered a brutal buffeting in the 2008 election campaign.

Then there is China. China's decision to launch a massive Internet cyberattack against dozens of corporations, as well as human-rights organizations, by targeting Google is cause for alarm. About 80 million Chinese individuals use the search engine. Whether or not Beijing directly perpetrated the attack or simply used so-called patriotic hackers, the incursion suggests that China's attempts to have it both ways-economic freedom and political authoritarianism-are running into something of a speed bump with the Internet. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu says, "China like other countries administers the internet according to law. China's internet is open, and the Chinese government encourages development of the internet."

Much ink has been spilled about whether or not the Internet can, in fact, be used as a tool of coercion. Obviously, it can. But China, unlike Russia, has focused on creating a free-market economy. That economy relies upon a free exchange of ideas. It would be a profound mistake for China to stifle it.

Google is now threatening to exit China, which is probably the right decision. Maybe it's bluffing, in the hopes of prompting the Chinese government to reach some kind of modus vivendi with it. The Chinese market is so large that it's painful for any business to think of spurning it, even though Google hasn't made big inroads into it yet. But it's hard to imagine that the Chinese themselves would want to sever their relationship with Google. The regime should not allow its fear of the consequences of free expression to result in the de facto expulsion of Google. The truth is that the very steps the regime is taking to maintain control will undermine it. Its legitimacy will not be enhanced by Google's exit. The reverse is the case.

In both the case of Haiti and China, America's national interests are at stake. Haiti has been a running sore, a perennial source of upheaval for America. Haiti has boasted kleptocratic governments and an indigent population. The earthquake may actually prompt something that hasn't been tried yet-an effort at constructing a viable country out of the shambles. But it would have to be a global rather than an American effort. After complaining for a decade about American unilateralism, Haiti offers an opportunity for Europe-particularly France, which bears grave historical responsibility for Haiti's parlous state-to show that it can exercise leadership.

In the case of China, the Obama administration is proceeding cautiously. The most Commerce Secretary Gary Locke would say is that the allegations about China's behavior toward Google are "troubling." That's probably the right approach. Beijing knows that the stakes are high. Public pressure from the White House would only exacerbate tensions and likely be counterproductive. Beijing should recognize that the cyberattacks it has tacitly endorsed are counterproductive. Obviously, spying will always go on. But the targeting of Google goes far beyond simply obtaining secret information. Perhaps the French diplomat Talleyrand's famous bon mot applies here: it was worse than a crime. It was a mistake.

For the Obama administration, the stakes are high in the cases of both Haiti and China. An ancient Chinese curse says, "May you live in interesting times." The Obama administration is living in a very interesting time.


Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.