Human Rights and Democracy Betrayed
Thursday, July 23, 2009
The early months of the Obama administration suggest that it has fallen prey to a false and foolish choice. The values and impulse of idealism that animated United States foreign policy have flatlined.
In Santo Domingo on her way to the Summit of Americas, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “Let’s put ideology aside, that’s so yesterday.” Really?
Shouts for freedom have become tentative whispers. The clarion call for human rights has faded. The values and impulse of idealism that animated United States foreign policy have flatlined. Fidelity to realism and pragmatism abroad has resulted in infidelity to our better selves. If this is “change” we can believe in, it certainly is not the change voiceless victims of repression and abuse around the world had hoped for nor what they have come to expect from America, the shining city on a hill.
The hesitancy, caution, and muted words of President Obama after the Iranian election irregularities and brutal crackdown are the most prominent example of America’s retreat from the frontlines of human rights protection and democracy promotion, but they are not singular. They are part of a troubling pattern of retreat.
Unquestionably, the American people made a decision about President George W. Bush and it was not kind. For more than three years, his approval numbers languished at historic lows. While time may recalibrate that judgment, the failure to find weapons of mass destruction and the mistakes in post-conflict Iraq, Katrina mismanagement, and the scandalous events at Abu Ghraib have left an indelible mark. It is easy to understand President Obama’s desire to distance himself from his predecessor.
In attempting to contrast his presidency from that of George W. Bush, President Obama is traveling a well-worn path of previous presidents new in office. Stylistically there is certainly a dramatic contrast between the two men, as there is in many policy areas such as healthcare, tax policy, and environmental issues—even as in areas such as the deadline for U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq the policy is basically the same but with a new rhetorical ribbon. But, sadly, it increasingly appears, that when it comes to human rights and democracy, the Obama administration’s view is “that’s so yesterday.”
Fidelity to realism and pragmatism abroad has resulted in infidelity to our better selves.
President Bush’s second inaugural address eloquently laid out freedom’s call, but perhaps overshot its mark. The energy of the Orange, Rose, and Cedar revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia, and Lebanon, respectively, suggested that freedom comes easy and quickly. But it does not. It is a hard, difficult, uneven journey. Iraq and Afghanistan’s costly and uncertain futures, Russia’s retrenchment, and tyranny in Burma, Belarus, and Zimbabwe provide testimony to ample impediments to freedom’s march.
Events have reminded us that history, heritage, and habits are incubators of democracy. Democracy cannot be imposed onto a society. The forms freedom will take are different depending on the soil in which it grows, but all free societies are built upon the values of personal liberty, the rule of law, vibrant civil society, a free press, and self-determination. Liberty is the right and desire of all women and men, and often they need help to realize that aspiration: inspiration, solidarity, technical assistance, material aid, and political and practical support. And America’s history is one of recognizing those values, identifying with those oppressed seeking human rights and freedom, and embracing the opportunity and responsibility to support freedom’s march.
American’s commitment to and advocacy for human rights and democracy are not the fashion of any moment in time. Human rights and democracy are enduring values central to the American experience and fundamental to who we are as a people. As former Secretary of State George Shultz once said, “What unifies us is not a common origin but a common set of ideals: freedom, constitutional democracy, racial and religious tolerance. We Americans thus define ourselves not by where we come from but by where we are headed: our goals, our values, our principles, which make the kind of society we strive to create.”
Of course, America should be realistic, pragmatic, and practical in the conduct of foreign policy. Hubris should give way to humility. We should try to understand others’ perspectives but we need not sacrifice principles. We should seek conciliation and cooperation but that need not lead to compromise and capitulation of “our goals, our values, our principles, which make the kind of society we strive to create.”
Yet, in its early months, the Obama administration has been reluctant to seize this opportunity and to accept this responsibility. This has alarmed human rights advocates and members of the democracy promotion community irrespective of their political allegiances.
Before Secretary Clinton’s first trip to China she made it abundantly clear that she would not robustly raise the issue of human rights nor allow its abuses to impinge on other priorities. She dismissively said, “We pretty much know what they are going to say because I’ve had those kind of conversations for more than a decade with Chinese leaders . . . Our pressing on those [human rights] issues can’t interfere” with other topics.
T. Kumar of Amnesty International USA said human rights activists were “shocked and extremely disappointed” by the secretary of State’s remarks. He noted, “The United States is one of the only countries that can meaningfully stand up to China on human rights issues. But by commenting that human rights will not interfere with other priorities, Secretary Clinton damages future U.S. initiatives to protect those rights in China.”
Liberty is the right and desire of all women and men, and often they need help to realize that aspiration: inspiration, solidarity, technical assistance, material aid, and political and practical support.
The Sunday Times of London reported on Secretary Clinton’s trip to Beijing under the headline, “Hillary Clinton panders to China as Dissidents are Silenced.” Human Rights Watch said that Secretary Clinton’s remarks “undermine rights reform” in China. And the Washington Post editorialized, “The secretary of State underestimates the power of her words.” It went on to say that “playing down [human rights] concerns won’t change Beijing’s stance on North Korea or increase its willingness to reduce carbon emissions. But it will cause the regime to feel less restrained in cracking down on movements such as the newly formed Charter 08, whose manifesto [is] in favor of democratic change.”
This retreat from traditional American human rights policy is in stark contrast to Bill Clinton’s muscular speeches supporting freedom in China when he was president and Hillary Clinton’s own robust rhetoric as First Lady in support of women’s rights in China.
Does Beijing look at American challenges to China’s human rights abuses as routine, old hat, just going through the motions? Absolutely not. It goes to the government’s legitimacy.
In 2004 as the United States Ambassador to the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva, I tabled a resolution that accurately cited China’s abuse of human rights and condemned those transgressions. The Chinese diplomatic response was active and far reaching. Leading up to the Human Rights Commission’s meeting in Geneva, China explored token gestures to forestall the resolution’s introduction. They made demarches all over the world. In Geneva, once I had tabled the resolution, the Chinese ambassador’s heated, frequent, and exaggerated rebuttals and his counter-attacks were so extreme as to be comical. While I generally sought to ignore his verbal fuselage, I finally felt compelled to comment to a reporter’s inquiry that being attacked by the Chinese government on America’s human rights record was like being called ugly by a frog.
The point is that China, like other repressive authoritarian regimes, holds legitimacy most preciously. The less they deserve that imprimatur the more desperately they cling to it. Shining a light on their human rights abuses challenges and undermines an assertion of legitimacy.
If this incident with China were an isolated kerfuffle, it might be dismissed as a simple gaffe early in a new administration. But it is not. It’s part of a disturbing pattern of admissions and omissions.
In her confirmation hearing, Hillary Clinton notably talked about the three Ds: defense, diplomacy, and development. The media has pointed out that she did not mention a fourth D, democracy, and suggests that this is a clean break from the prior administration’s “freedom agenda.”
If this is ‘change’ we can believe in, it certainly is not the change voiceless victims of repression and abuse around the world had hoped for nor what they have come to expect from America, the shining city on a hill.
Regarding Burma, where Nobel Peace Prize winner San Suu Kyi is under house arrest and more than 2,100 other political prisoners are in jail, Secretary Clinton questioned the effectiveness of the sanctions that have been imposed on the military junta for its human rights abuses.
Unlike her predecessors, when the State Department’s annual Country Report on Human Rights was presented, Secretary Clinton made only a perfunctory four-minute appearance. Later, while in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, she was asked about that report’s conclusions that the Egyptian “government’s respect for human rights remained poor . . . and serious abuses continued in many areas.” Secretary Clinton chose not to express concern about the unacceptable situation. Instead she said routinely, “We issue these reports on every country. We hope that it will be taken in the spirit in which it is offered, that we all have room for improvement.” Then, when asked if the report might impact a possible visit to Washington by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, she said breezily, “It is not in any way connected. I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family. So I hope to see him often here in Egypt and in the United States.”
Then in Istanbul, she was asked about Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s complaints that the annual State Department Human Rights report had criticized his government’s intimidation of the media. Secretary Clinton’s reply, “Well, my reaction was that we put out this report every year, and I fully understand . . . no politician ever likes the press criticizing them . . . Overall we think that Turkey has made tremendous progress in freedom of speech and freedom of religion and human rights, and we’re proud of that.” So much for the State Department’s documentation that Turkey’s performance on freedom of speech has gotten worse.
The list goes on. Barack Obama gave the first presidential inaugural speech in decades that did not mention democracy. And his muted remarks about the Iranian election irregularities spoke louder than any words.
I do not believe, nor would I want to believe, that either President Obama nor Secretary Clinton do not believe in human rights, the rule of law, and the right of self-determination. And while I appreciate the desire to distance themselves from their predecessor and chart a practical path forward, I nonetheless believe the Obama administration is making a profound and consequential mistake by diminishing the importance of democracy and human rights in United States policy and rhetoric.
I believe in America’s tradition of support for human rights and democracy, but it is not because of nostalgia, nor due to some misty eyed romanticism nor abstract idealism. Yes, it is the right thing to do. Our nation was founded upon the proposition that “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Iraq and Afghanistan’s costly and uncertain futures, Russia’s retrenchment, and tyranny in Burma, Belarus, and Zimbabwe provide testimony to ample impediments to freedom’s march.
Every generation of Americans has reaffirmed their fundamental faith in and commitment to this declaration. As Ronald Reagan said, “Liberty is not the right of the lucky few, but the inalienable right of all mankind.”
However, support for human rights and democracy also is in America’s self-interest. Governments that respect and protect human rights and whose leaders are democratically elected tend to be more stable societies. They do not tolerate arbitrary abuse and injustice. There are peaceful procedures to allocate power and arbitrate varied interests and disputes. Democracies are able to adjust, adapt, and advance.
Free societies tend to be more prosperous. Most refugees come from undemocratic societies. Democracies are less adventurous and less inclined to war. And nations that share our values are our natural friends and allies.
These early months suggest that the Obama administration has fallen prey to a false and foolish choice. There is no need to choose between realism and idealism in U.S. foreign policy. A wise and prudent path recognizes the importance of both. As Henry Kissinger, that foremost foreign policy realist has stated, “We need realism to deal with the world as it is. And we need idealism to tell us where we are going.”
Embracing human rights and promoting democracy is not an impediment to a pragmatic approach to the world. It is a sound and prudent way to advance American interests. Doing so is true to our history and heritage, to our virtues and values, to our dreams and destiny.
Ambassador Richard S. Williamson is a partner at Winston & Strawn. He served as an ambassador and U.S. representative in several capacities to the United Nations, as an assistant secretary of State, as assistant to the president for intergovernmental affairs in the White House for President Ronald Reagan, and as chairman of the Illinois Republican Party. In January 2008, he was appointed special envoy to Sudan by President George W. Bush.
Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.