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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

Why human rights are not paramount

German Chancellor Angela Merkel talks to President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev prior to a news conference in Berlin, Germany, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2012. Photo: AP Photo/Michael Sohn

German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently faced some criticismfor her decision to ink a trade deal with Kazakhstan for access to its “rare earth” metals.  China, which supplies 97 percent of the world’s rare earths and 90 percent of Europe’s demand, decided in 2010 to cut its exports – sparking a price jump and supply restrictions. In response, Merkel reached out to Kazakhstan to make up the shortfall.

Rare earth metals are a vital component for most developed countries. Last year, my think tank, the American Security Project, released a report about how an American dependence on Chinese rare earths creates a “weak link” in the defense supply chain. Though not actually “rare,” China does control the global market, which makes many countries uneasy about their export decisions.

Merkel was criticized because Kazakhstan does not have a very good human rights record. Last December, Kazakh police forces broke up an anti-government demonstration in a small town in a western oil-producing region and killed at least 17 people in the process; later, its elections were widely decried as decidedly not open and not free.

Human rights groups think the rush to ink trade deals with abusive regimes is shortsighted. Several want western governments to demand certain working conditions and other rights concerns be met before a trade deal goes into effect. It is an intriguing angle to push: after all, the abusive regime probably needs western capital more than the west needs its raw materials, right? But this view misses the tension at the heart of modern foreign and economic policy: leaders must balance national interests with promoting rights abroad.

Merkel’s decision to sign a trade deal with Kazakhstan is not a simple one to make, morally or geopolitically. Germany has always had a somewhat complex relationship with Central Asia in general and Kazakhstan in particular. In 2007, Russia suddenly revoked overflight rights for German airline Lufthansa cargo in an attempt to get them to switch their main Europe-Asia hub airport from Astana to Krasnoyarsk. There is also a sizable population of ethnic Germans in Kazakhstan (when I lived in Karaganda, Kazakhstan in 2003, I taught a number of German students). And Germany has been a major player in the push to use sanctions on Uzbek officials believed to be involved in the 2005 Andijon massacre.

Chancellor Merkel, in other words, is not blind to the moral issues at play in signing a new deal with Kazakhstan. So why would she go ahead with it? In a word: Greece. Europe is teetering on the brink of economic collapse thanks to its debt crisis. It’s in this sort of crisis environment that governments are most likely to compromise on the rights of other countries’ citizens in an effort to safeguard the interests of their own. Germany is, to a degree at least, supporting a huge portion of the European economy. Germany’s outsized role in the euro bailout has sparked a vigorous debate in the German parliament, with a coalition of opposition parties voicing opposition to the bailout.

In light of the European debt crisis, Merkel’s attempt to develop alternate income streams and lower commodity prices through a trade deal with Kazakhstan makes economic and political sense. She would be negligent as a head of state to compromise her own country’s economic well being – and her own political survival – as a symbolic move of support for Kazakh rights. Human rights activists are justified to be miffed at the realpolitik of such a decision, but it’s a very rational one to make all the same.

That doesn’t make human rights in a place like Central Asia unimportant. But it does mean they do not and probably should not take a front seat in foreign policy decisions. Consider this: if Merkel had refused the Kazakh deal or if she had either delayed or undermined it by insisting on changes in Kazakh rights, would she and her party get re-elected? It’s possible an issue as relatively minor as the import of certain classes of metals might not swing an election, but it’s equally possible the Confederation of German Industry, or some other lobby group for industry, could gin up public discontent with Merkel’s party.

It’s rare for a leader to win the support of her citizenry by subordinating their interests to the human rights of people living abroad. Consider, in an American context, Jimmy Carter’s decision to boycott the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. President Carter did this to protest the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan the previous year, part of his broad push to emphasize the promotion of human rights as an American interest. It was also one of the most bitterly controversial decisions he made, and ultimately contributed to his inability to secure a second term in the White House.

U.S. policy makers are facing a choice in Central Asia that is very similar to Chancellor Merkel’s. The U.S. decision to reengage with the government of Uzbekistan has been controversial, and has sparked condemnations from the same human rights groups that protest Merkel’s decision. Such condemnations, however, raise a very basic question: What can be done? One hears, routinely, from rights activists that the U.S. always has a choice, and that is has leverage, but one hears very rarely what those choices are or what that leverage is.

The sad reality is, European and U.S. leaders do not have many options left in their foreign policy arsenal these days when it comes to Central Asia. Leaders face difficult situations where they must choose between supporting beleaguered foreigners and risk losing power or protecting their own countries’ interests by overlooking human rights abuses. It shouldn’t be surprising that they choose their own country over another. And despite all the hand wringing, no one really has a good answer for what else could possibly be done.