Reports from Western China suggest that the Chinese government has demanded the local Muslim population cease fasting during Ramadan. While the New York Times’s Tom Friedman and other columnists may sing the Chinese dictatorship’s praises, little marks tyranny as much as repression of religious freedom. China takes it to a new level when they demand people eat who otherwise have refrained from eating during the day. Government overreach is pretty clear when it seeks to dictate when to eat and when not to.
Too often diplomats whitewash adversaries in order to make diplomacy easier. Easier diplomacy, however, isn’t necessarily more effective, especially if it does not reflect reality. It never makes sense to gear U.S. policy to what diplomats wish an adversary would be rather than what it actually is. Realism shouldn’t mean blind diplomacy with enemies; it should instead require dealing with reality.
While religious freedom may not seem a paramount U.S. national-security interest at first glance, it is perhaps the greatest window into the character and sincerity of any regime. The purpose of diplomacy is to change behavior. Governments can easily promise concessions on nuclear weapons, other conventional weaponry, ballistic missile programs, or terrorism. Often they lie, knowing American diplomats would rather cover for their lies than risk talks collapsing. A close study of diplomacy with rogues and adversaries suggest that respect for religious freedom can be correlated directly to those states’ and groups’ willingness to adhere to their other negotiated agreements.
Religious freedom, however, is easy to monitor. It may not substitute for other issues of more immediate national-security concern, but it is a barometer of sincerity and a metric for more substantive change among the states which most often threaten international order. Perhaps if religious freedom and individual liberty are to remain part of the American brand, no U.S. administration or American diplomat should be shy about standing up for either.