from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Who Will Meet the Dalai Lama?

July 6, 2011

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

The Dalai Lama is in Washington this week and next, but it appears that no high ranking administration official will see him. The president and secretary of state are here, but unless something changes they will skip this opportunity.

That is a very bad signal to send to China. For one thing, the Dalai Lama recently renounced all political roles, which ought to make it even easier for the president to see him.

Such a meeting could center around freedom of religion and efforts at cultural preservation in Tibet. Chinese protests should be given short shrift.

When I entered the State Department in the Reagan Administration, even speaking to the Tibetans was considered an outrageous act by the denizens of the China Desk and the East Asia Bureau. As Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights in 1982, I was finally permitted to meet with the head of the Tibetan office in Washington—but not at the State Department.  He was not permitted to set foot in the building at that time, so we met in a hotel lobby. This horrible practice was ended, and finally, in the George W. Bush Administration, presidential meetings with the Dalai Lama became regular. The Chinese protested but they got over it. The two men, the Dalai Lama and President Bush, developed a warm personal relationship and recently His Holiness visited Dallas and presented Bush with an early draft of what became the 1963 Tibetan constitution, for display at the Bush Institute.

President Obama has met the Dalai Lama only once and when he did so allowed only one photo of the event to be distributed. This policy will win him nothing from the Chinese, who do not respect weakness. It would be far better to embrace the Dalai Lama and call again for religious freedom in Tibet. This would strengthen the administration’s weak overall human rights performance. The Dalai Lama will be here for ten days, so the usual “difficult scheduling” excuse cannot be offered. The president should have him over for a chat—and this time take a really bold step like distributing two photos.