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Still Orphans of the Cold War? President Obama’s Decision to Postpone Meeting with the Dalai Lama in Historical Context

November 16, 2009

President Obama will make his first major trip to Asia this week. The visit takes place against the backdrop of criticisms for his decision to postpone meeting with the Dalai Lama in Washington, DC, spiritual leader of the Tibetan exile community and fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Published accounts indicate that President Obama pressed the Dalai Lama’s representatives to delay any meeting until after Obama has met with the Chinese leadership. This marks the first time in nearly two decades that a US president declined to meet with the Dalai Lama during a visit by the Tibetan leader to Washington. The National Security Archive is launching a new project on US policy towards Tibet, which will work to identify and bring to light the hidden inside story of how US policymakers assessed and addressed the Tibetan dilemma during the Cold War and afterwards. In many ways the dilemma faced by President Obama is illustrative of this history.

The criticism against President Obama has come from all sides and abroad. John Pomfret in The Washington Post characterized the decision to press the Dalai Lama to postpone the meeting as an “attempt to gain favor with China,” though according to some observers, China might have accepted that a meeting between the US president and the Tibetan leader was going to happen.

In the Wall Street Journal, Michael J. Green, who handled Asian affairs at the National Security Council (NSC) under George W. Bush and is now Japan Chair at CSIS and an associate professor at Georgetown, similarly took Obama to task, arguing that despite President Obama’s strongly stated commitments to human rights, the administration’s emphasis on engagement with China is an opening for further repression in places such as Tibet and Burma. Green points to Beijing’s increased demands that the Dalai Lama stop all foreign travel and meetings with foreign governments before China will resume the Sino-Tibetan talks that broke down in 2008.

Similar concerns and disappointment were expressed by Vaclav Havel, the man who led the Czecks and Slovaks out of communism in the Velvet Revolution two decades ago. When told during a recent interview that President Obama had in fact refused to meet with the Dalai Lama, Havel pointed out that while it was only a “minor compromise,” there was the risk that “these minor compromises start the big and dangerous ones, the real problems.”

Pushing back, the administration has said that Obama intends to raise the issue of Tibet in his discussions with the Chinese. One of Obama’s senior advisors, Valerie Jarrett, who recently led a US delegation to meet with the Dalai Lama in India, strongly rebutted these criticisms, asserting the decision in no way marks a waning of Obama’s commitment to human rights. Jarrett also pointed out that Obama will bring up the issue of Tibet in his talks with the Chinese leadership. Yet, even Jarrett admitted that Obama’s decision was made with “an eye to Chinese sensitivities about Tibet.”

As even the critical voices admit, there is a need to balance public and private diplomacy when engaging with China to address a wide spectrum of strategically important policy issues, including Tibet. There is ample room for disagreement on where to strike this balance when it comes to human rights and other key strategic concerns, with some arguing that to publicly press the Chinese on this issue will only result in Beijing clamping down harder on Tibet. For others, such as Mike Green, what some see as pre-emptive concessions will only serve to embolden further repression rather than create a more receptive Chinese leadership.

Striking this balance has been a perennial problem for US diplomacy with respect to Tibet since the early days of the Cold War, the troubled history of which John Kenneth Knaus, a former CIA officer with first-hand experience of this history, has examined in his fascinating book, Orphans of the Cold War: America and the Tibetan Struggle for Survival. The National Security Archive’s new project on US policy towards Tibet will work to better understand this history and to place current US policies in their proper historical context.

Two documents from the Kissinger Transcripts document set edited by National Security Archive Analyst Bill Burr serve as good examples of the new information that the US Tibet Policy Project will seek to bring to light, not least how Tibetan interests have suffered in the context of Sino-American relations. Some historical background helps to place these documents in context. Nixon’s opening to China in 1972 has been seen by many, including Tibetans, as the critical turning point in US support for the Tibetan cause. Evidence for this is seen in the effort to close the Tibetan Affairs office in New York and the US decision in late summer of 1974 to end the covert subsidy it had been providing the Dalai Lama to support him and his government-in-exile (on these points, see Knaus, pp. 309-310).

These two documents further illustrate a hardening of the US attitude. The first is the record of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s meeting with his senior staff on December 23, 1974. One item on the agenda was the desire of the Tibetan Foundation to invite the Dalai Lama to visit the US (see pages 39-41). The discussion noted in passing possible problems with the Chinese over such a visit, and Kissinger was not very sympathetic to say the least, commenting that he couldn’t see “what good the Dalai Lama does us in this country.” Kissinger also doubted that there was “an overwhelming demand for his religious competence in this country. Are there any Tibetan Buddhists here?”

The second document is a memorandum of conversation of one of President Ford’s meetings with the Chinese leadership during his visit to China in December 1975. The President’s delegation, which included Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft, and George H.W. Bush, then head of the US Liaison Office in Beijing, was meeting with Chinese Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping and other Chinese officials. In this final session of the summit meeting, the Dalai Lama came up a number of times in the discussion, and not in a flattering light (see pages 9-10, 12, 14-15).

For Deng, the Dalai Lama belonged in the category of small issues, a subject of occasional ridicule, but one on which the Chinese leadership held strong views nonetheless. Satisfied that the Dalai Lama was now a burden on India, Deng noted, amidst laughter by the other Chinese in the room, that Mao had found it better to allow the Dalai Lama to leave China even though he could have prevented it. Deng also provided the Chinese perspective on how their rule had bettered the life of Tibetans, referring to the “changes that have been wrought by the serfs that he [the Dalai Lama] had so cruelly ruled.” In Deng’s view of Tibetan history, the rule of the lamas had been characterized by economic backwardness and cruel oppression of the people, backed by torture.

The document records no challenge to Deng’s statements by the US president or his advisors. Rather, their comments seem to share in the humor at the Dalai Lama’s expense and aim to reassure the Chinese leadership that the US shares their views about Tibet. Ford stated that the US did not approve of actions India had taken in support of Tibet, agreed the Dalai Lama should stay in India, and sought to assure Deng that the US opposed and did not support any governmental action so far as Tibet was concerned.

These two documents are admittedly snapshots from a period when US relations with China, under the guidance of Henry Kissinger, were undergoing historic changes which necessarily affected official US attitudes and policies towards Tibet and the Dalai Lama’s political position. The Archive’s US Tibet Policy Project will work to place such documents and events within a broader and deeper historical context that ranges from early Cold War covert programs to the emergence of the Dalai Lama as a world leader and Nobel Peace laureate claiming widespread public support in America and abroad. This context will help us understand both continuities and turning points in US policies toward the Tibetan struggle during the Cold War and after.

One Comment
  1. breandmike permalink
    September 2, 2010 3:40 pm

    I am a 8th grade teacher in NC and came across your site while researching some information about the cold war for my class this year. I just wanted to thank you first of all for the great information and articles about the cold war, and let you know about a site we are putting together for teachers.

    We would love it if you could write a few articles for us, or link to some of the current articles to help us spread trusted resources to other teachers. I have included a link to the site below in hopes you might want to write some articles for us or link to it.

    Thanks and keep the great resources coming 🙂

    Bre Matthews

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