Over last summer, President Clinton traveled to China, ostensibly to make headway in Sino-American relations. He had billed his trip as a chance to discuss “human rights” issues with the Chinese government because China’s record on human rights was disgraceful. But no real discussion occurred.

The reason Clinton was unable to discuss any fundamental principles is that he has none.

He is, however, a man for the times. He is the epitome of the modern pragmatist. When it was expedient for the purposes of getting elected in 1992, Clinton promised a middle-class tax cut, sharply criticized Bush for supporting Most Favored Nation trading status for China, and swore that he would eliminate the ban on homosexuals in the military. When it became beneficial for Clinton to renege on his promises, he reneged. Is it at all surprising that Doonesbury — a well-known leftist political cartoon — portrays Clinton as the outline of a human shape with a waffle for brains?

“What does this have to do with Clinton’s trip to China?” you may ask — the answer is: everything.

During his trip to China, the President told the Chinese that “Individual rights are very important, not only to those who exercise them, but also to nations.” He praised “creativity” and “free exchange and enterprise.” Yet, Clinton concluded, “For all of our agreements we disagree about what happened there [at Tiananmen Square]. I believe, and the American people believe, that the use of force and the tragic loss of life was wrong…How shall we deal with our disagreements and still succeed in the important work of deepening our friendship and our sense of mutual respect. First, we Americans must acknowledge the painful moments in our own history when fundamental human rights were denied…” Clinton’s statements were characterized by the press as shocking, harsh, frank, and condemnatory. He was praised for his courageous stand for “morality.”

But was this a moral statement?

Let’s not forget that he’s talking to the same Chinese government that massacred students at Tiananmen Square in 1989. The students were peacefully protesting their government, demanding simple things, such as respect for basic rights. These students should remind us of the revolutionary upstarts who founded our own country with the same cries. But the Chinese government, unlike the British, was able to quash the revolution with machine guns and tanks. Some survivors were imprisoned and even executed. Others were sent to slave labor camps where they joined other political prisoners who make the cheap goods sold to American consumers even to this day.

Keeping the context of their sheer brutality, let’s look at the President’s response. To translate the Clintonspeak: “We agree on so much — it’s wonderful! That whole thing in Tiananmen Square makes us kind of uneasy. Don’t take this the wrong way, but in America, we see mass slaughter and butchery to be a bad thing. Don’t get upset though because we can still be friends anyway! Americans just need to realize that we are just as bad as you.” This “condemnation” of the massacre at Tiananmen Square evokes images of FDR wagging his finger at the Nazis and saying “For all of our agreements, we disagree about what happened there [Auschwitz]. I believe, and the American people believe, that the use of force and the tragic loss of life was wrong.” Would we accept this as a condemnation of the concentration camps and the unparalleled evil of the Nazis?

Furthermore, Clinton’s argument for rights was anything but forceful and compelling. In effect, Clinton said that individual rights are beneficial not only because they protect individuals but also because they help to achieve good consequences for a nation. But what if a nation found those rights to be a blight rather than a blessing — such as China did in Tiananmen Square? No answer. Clinton in fact sounds empathetic with the Chinese government. He offered no defense of property rights or any other individual rights. He praised “creativity” and “free exchange and enterprise,” which, in this context, is tantamount to praising prison inmates who are permitted to finger paint and share their “creations” among themselves.

In sum, his statements were not “shocking.” They were nothing less than a soothing stroke on the wrist, let alone a slap. No matter what the pundits and spinmeisters told you, this is a perfect and disgusting example of how pragmatism leads to moral bankruptcy. When a man has no principles himself, then he is incapable of either condemning or defending the moral principles of others.

Who in America seems to stand up against this corrupt, evil, totalitarian state of China? Musical groups such as Rage Against the Machine and The Beastie Boys, known for their controversial political and religious views, are at the forefront of a popular cause: the Free Tibet movement. Should Tibet be freed from China’s dictatorial power? Certainly, along with the rest of the country. However, the Beastie Boys and Rage come up short in their condemnation. Essentially, the Free Tibet movement has no quarrels with China’s communism; they dislike only the militaristic element and the undemocratic element. Their “idealism,” which is supposed to contrast with pragmatism, actually supports the present system in China. This is no more of a moral stand against China than Clinton’s hackneyed remarks.

Is there another alternative? Well, the only influential group left, disorganized and dispirited, is the Republican Party. However, Republican majorities in Congress have continued to approve Most Favored Nation trading status for China. Their disgust with China’s human rights record is eclipsed by their own pragmatic concerns, be these kowtowing to Clinton or lusting for short-term economic growth. Despite its claims to the contrary, the Republican Party is just as unprincipled as the President’s party.

As evil as Red China is, it will be victorious over a drifting, unprincipled United States. When our President is lauded for having the courage to criticize butchers as “wrong” and is unable to denounce a pernicious criminal regime without discussing each and every skeleton in the closet of the United States, our country is bankrupt. The philosophy of pragmatism is poisoning this country.

The solution is not religious fundamentalism, as Republicans would have you believe, or massive wealth redistribution programs, as Democrats would have you believe. To the extent that this is a political issue, no party in American politics is capable of dealing with it appropriately. This stems from the fact that this is not a political issue at root. It is a deeper philosophical issue, and philosophy is not on the minds of politicians, nor does it hold sway with the American people, who view it as an impractical subject for academics in ivory towers.

It is time for America to discover that it is philosophy that is at the root of everything that can make it a great nation, or worse for that matter. America is the most rational, sensible country in the world. A philosophy which affirms reality, reason, and rational self-interest would give this country the moral sanction it needs to stand up to killers such as those in the Chinese government. A rational philosophy would lead a person to recognize his nature, his means of knowledge, and a need for independent judgment. Such a man would demand, without reservation, his rights to deal with reality by using his own mind. He would shrink in horror at the prospect that his rights are constructed for some societal scheme. If Clinton had such a rational philosophy, and believed in it with every fiber of his being, he would have said: “The Chinese government routinely subverts the principle of individual rights. It has enslaved its people and torments them even more when they cry out for freedom. I refuse to visit, let alone deal with, such a nation.”

America must wake up to the idea of philosophy, of principles, of absolute truths, or countries that are already awake, evil as they may be, will destroy and conquer this sleeping giant.

–Mark Kormes is a student at the University of Chicago.

— This op-ed was produced through The Ayn Rand Institute’s Reason On Campus program — a site for college Objectivist students worldwide to post their published or unpublished non-fiction writing.