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[David Ignatius] Beware ‘moral hazard’ in Hong Kong

Aug. 18, 2019 - 17:19 By David Ignatius
Watching videos of Chinese protesters singing the US national anthem in the streets of Hong Kong, or hearing the tear-jerking chorus of “Les Miserables” during a sit-in at the Hong Kong airport, only someone with a heart of stone wouldn’t want to assist these brave people who are fighting for their freedom.

But beware. The problem is that easy gestures of support could get these Chinese freedom fighters killed. It’s a problem that insurance companies call “moral hazard,” when they inadvertently encourage people to take risks or engage in unsafe behavior by promising or implying that they’ll be protected or rescued.

President Trump has been as erratic on Hong Kong as on most foreign policy issues. In the early days, he all but invited Beijing to crack down, calling the protests “riots,” and saying it was a matter between Hong Kong and China “because Hong Kong is a part of China.”

This week, as a crackdown seemed near, Trump whined about being blamed for Chinese intervention and offered a “personal meeting” to resolve the crisis peacefully with the “great leader” President Xi Jinping.

Then, on Wednesday, he personalized the issue even more by linking a trade deal with Xi with a cooperative resolution of the Hong Kong crisis.

Much as I dislike Trump’s crass and self-centered comments, he is avoiding one important mistake in the Hong Kong crisis. He’s not implying that the United States is prepared to step in to protect the demonstrators from the consequences of their actions. He recognizes that Hong Kong is a matter for Beijing and Hong Kong to resolve, and he’s not writing checks that the American people in the end wouldn’t cash.

We need to be honest, with ourselves and others: America won’t go to war to save free speech in Hong Kong. It probably wouldn’t go to war to protect the independence of Taiwan, either. The US should subtly raise the cost of potential Chinese intervention, and maintain some ambiguity about our actions. But we should be careful about facile rhetorical threats that raise the costs for others.

The Hong Kong protests present a problem that arose often during the Cold War years. Anti-communist freedom fighters rose up in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. The United States had supported the overthrow of communism and, in the case of the Hungarian revolution, the CIA had apparently maintained some covert networks of support. But when the crunch came, US policymakers correctly judged that it was too dangerous to intervene.

An idealistic, interventionist America has a tendency to make promises it can’t keep. When protesters proclaim universal rights, we rightly stand with them intellectually. But sometimes we go further, implying that we’re with them on the barricades, too. But that’s rarely true, and for good reason: It’s too dangerous.

Too often, sentimental Americans are like the feckless lovers in 19th-century novels: We seduce and then we abandon.

The power of the weak against despotic enemies is that they start conflicts that they can’t finish -- in the hope that a great power will come and rescue them. The Bosnians and Kosovars did that in the Balkan wars of the 1990s; Iraqi Kurds weaponized their vulnerability against Saddam Hussein at the end of the 1991 Gulf War. Arab Spring protesters did the same thing in Egypt, Syria and Libya in 2011.

When the United States encourages these uprisings, we incur a moral liability: If we don’t come to the assistance of those whose hopes we’ve raised, we are diminished as a people. There’s blood on our hands when the tanks roll in.

But if we do intervene with our own troops, we make a far more dangerous commitment. The American people are still angry about the sacrifice of American blood and treasure in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that weren’t adequately anchored in American self-interest.

What’s the sound course, between the moral hazard of recklessly encouraging risk and the moral blindness of ignoring brave people fighting for their rights? The right answer is awkwardly somewhere in the middle -- supporting causes like the democracy protests in Hong Kong, and trying to deter despotic powers like China from intervening -- without implying that we’ll intervene directly ourselves to save the martyrs.

The State Department seemed to get it about right in its statement this week: “We condemn violence and urge all sides to exercise restraint, but remain staunch in our support for freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly in Hong Kong.”

Keeping faith with people who nobly aspire to freedom isn’t a spasm of support but a long game that plays out over decades. This is the restrained but steadfast approach that ultimately won the Cold War, and it’s a commitment that China will test at its peril. 

David Ignatius
David Ignatius can be reached via Twitter: @IgnatiusPost -- Ed.

(Washington Post Writers Group)