It would be rational, for example, for American diplomats to believe that the revolution in Tunisia is unlikely to spur similarly successful popular movements in other authoritarian Arab countries, such as Egypt and Algeria. But by the same token, it would have been rational for them to believe just a month ago that no such revolution was possible in Tunisia. Or to discount the likelihood that the people of Kyrgyzstan would overthrow their corrupt government just weeks before it happened last year. Or to dismiss as a pipe dream that the mighty Soviet Union would fall and that the powerless Baltic nations would become independent, democratic states, just a year before it happened. If we bet on the stability of authoritarian states, we will be right most of the time, but wrong at the crucial time.
History is made when the weather suddenly changes -- by deviations from the normal course of events. The challenge for American diplomacy is not to wait for shifts in favor of human rights and democracy before scrambling to appear to support them. It is not to wait until a dictator is halfway out the door before you condemn his abuses, freeze his assets, and demand free elections. It is to promote change in repressive states before it appears inevitable. If you think there is only a 10 percent chance that Egypt's post-Mubarak transition will usher in a government that answers to its people, or that in the next few years the Burmese military junta might compromise with the democratic opposition, or that a popular movement might successfully challenge political repression in Iran, then why not do what you can to help raise the odds to 20 or 30 percent? In foreign policy, as in baseball, .300 is a Hall of Fame average.
Political realities mean that American diplomats will use a different tone when confronting human rights abuses committed by a great power like China than a small one like Ivory Coast. They will rightly follow different strategies toward countries with strong democratic opposition movements, like Burma, than toward those where civil society is atomized, as it is in Turkmenistan. But where they are serious about promoting human rights and democracy, they can afford to be bolder, sooner, than they usually are. American diplomats need not always relegate their honest impressions to the confessional of a secret cable.
America's relationship with China did not crumble when Hillary Clinton challenged its government to stop censoring the Internet last year, or when she challenged the country to account for the dissidents it has disappeared over the years just days before last week's summit between presidents Barack Obama and Hu Jintao. America's Arab friends did not walk away from their alliances with the United States after Clinton told them, at a recent public forum in Qatar, that "people have grown tired of [their] corrupt institutions and stagnant political order." Such public candor not only encourages dissidents in repressive societies, but stimulates debate among elites, who often privately admit that the Americans have a point. It can contribute to those magical moments -- unpredictable, infrequent, but in the longer scheme of things inevitable -- when stagnant order gives way to vibrant change.
The people of Tunisia shouldn't have had to wait for WikiLeaks to learn that the U.S. saw their country just as they did. It's time that the gulf between what American diplomats know and what they say got smaller.