Ng Han Guan, Associated Press

The great question in international relations for the United States used to be "Guns or butter?" Do we give budding nations guns to defend themselves, or strengthen them internally with trade and economic help?

Today the question is more often "Principles or prosperity?" Do we sanction and punish nations for violating human rights in hopes they'll grow, or do we trade and participate with them in hopes of leading by example and coaxing them into the 21st century?

That's the question many have asked about China and the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. Should Western nations stay away because China mistreats its citizens, or should they try to urge the Chinese into a new era of new thinking by example and contact?

The question is never as easy as it sometimes appears. Currently the United States is trying to show China the proper path rather than brow beating the country into following it. In short, America is in China, winking at human-rights violations in the name of a greater good.

Prosperity as a way of easing barbarism has long been a tactic of American industry. Sometimes it has worked, as with the beefing up of democracy in Mexico. Sometimes — as with the United Fruit Company's adventures in Colombia — it has created poverty, resentment and a sense of exploitation in the minds of the locals.

Adding to the simmering cauldron about America's participation in the Olympic Games in China is a new report from Amnesty International claiming China's human-rights record is even worse than before, and it was abysmal then. Where free-flowing information was supposed to tear the blinders from the eyes of Chinese leaders, those leaders have opted instead to stifle dialogue and communication. Many are complaining.

The rebuttal from the International Olympic Committee has been that having the Games in China is better for freedom — despite the controversies — than not having them there when it comes to loosening the bonds of government.

That may well be true. The drawback is the results of the current "experiment" won't be seen for several years.

It is often said that "politics is the art of the possible." That is, politics cannot be based on the ideal but must take into account practical solutions to problems and compromises that work, even when both sides hold their noses over them.

In China, however, the territory is so virgin for the West that no one is sure what is possible and what is not. If the nation can be tugged a few steps closer to enlightenment about human rights and the dignity of each individual human being, is that better than banishing them into isolation for their barbarism?

Stayed tuned to find out — not just to the Games themselves, but to the little games of "Principle or prosperity?" that have already begun, even before the torch has been hoisted in Beijing.