Take China, admittedly always a tricky case. A policy of substituting public hectoring with private pressure is one thing. But quite another is President Clinton's agreement that the welcome ceremony for his visit to China next month should be held in Tiananmen Square. Will he use his words at the place whose name is shorthand for China's view of human rights, to remind his hosts of their failings ? Will there be even a small note of disapproval over China's behaviour in Tibet, the acid test of its human rights performance? Don't hold your breath - at least if the Washington Post's account of a White House visit by Wei Jingsheng, the Chinese dissident, is anything to go by.
The President was holding forth about the importance of human rights, when his thoughts were rudely interrupted by the arrival of Sandy Berger, his national security adviser, who reminded him of billions of dollars of outstanding US contracts with Peking. At which point Mr Clinton delivered a dollop of trademark fudge to Mr Wei: "We are concerned about trade, but we are much more concerned about human rights." It sounds fine, but the subtext is clear. The business of America remains business.
Or take another bellwether human rights issue, the proposed permanent International Criminal Court, under the auspices of the UN. The expected creation of a such a court later this year could be a milestone in the struggle for human rights - but the key word is "could". For everything depends on the power vested in the body, and the US is insisting on the right to veto individual cases, on the grounds that American peacekeepers might otherwise be subject to frivolous prosecution. But a US veto would mean a veto for all Security Council members - certainly for its five permanent members. And could anyone imagine, say, China permitting a trial of its one-time protege Pol Pot? If the US has its way, some crimes against humanity will simply slip through the net.
Much scepticism has been voiced over the "ethical foreign policy", and many holes picked in it, notably the allegedly over-gentle treatment of the likes of Saudi Arabia and Indonesia. But the language is right, and the project, more or less, is holding. A year on, human rights organisations still give Robin Cook the benefit of the doubt. "Yes, we'd like to see more contracts actually cancelled, and development aid programmes more closely tied to human rights," is the reaction, "but don't write the whole thing off. Behind the scenes there's some very interesting stuff going on." Not least interesting is Britain's belief - at direct odds with the US - that the international criminal court, not governments, should decide which cases to bring, to ensure its independence.
Britain too appears to see more clearly the chance offered by the Asian financial crisis, which has borne hardest on some of the countries most resistant to reason on human rights. In Indonesia this week, Gordon Brown sounded exactly the right note, arguing that "every economic reform programme must have a social element ... in the context of respect for individual (read `human') rights." In other words, that the International Monetary Fund, whose support is vital for the economic recovery of these countries, could be a crucial force not merely for financial reform and open markets, but explicitly for human rights as well. If that argument could be impressed upon Washington and others, that would be a coup indeed.Reuse content