December 17, 2013

Squaring Human Rights and National Security

Human rights have earned a bit of prominence in Washington’s foreign policy debates over the past couple of weeks.  First, National Security Advisor Susan Rice addressed the annual Human Rights First summit, where she emphasized that “advancing democracy and respect for human rights is central to our foreign policy.”  Last week, proclaimed Human Rights Week, saw the 30th anniversary celebrations of the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, two democracy-building organizations established after Ronald Reagan’s landmark Westminster speech.  And Nelson Mandela’s funeral in South Africa brought together scores of world leaders in tribute to that champion of human dignity.

Yet ours is a realist age.  Exhausted by costly democracy-building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, a majority of Americans now say that the United States should “mind its own business internationally,” a higher percentage than at any time in the last five decades.  President Obama plainly shies away from the expansiveness of the Bush “Freedom Agenda” and in his annual United Nations speech outlined four “core interests” in the Middle East – none of which included the promotion of human rights and democracy.  In a speech last week, UN Ambassador Samantha Power cited the perception (unfounded, she said) “that the United States may be taking a sabbatical from democracy promotion.”

It is tempting to adopt a view of the world that elevates interests above values and sees the promotion of human rights and democracy as a task best left to a handful of do-gooding diplomats.  Steely-eyed strategists, after all, see the world as it is, rather than as they would like it to be.  So let’s avoid the imposition of democracy on peoples who are unready for it (or in a crasser reading, incapable of its achievement).  Narrow our national security goals to make them attainable.  Eschew the transformation of societies. 

Yet we should not be so quick to dismiss the role of values in our foreign policy.  The promotion of human rights and democracy is part and parcel of America’s greatness, and intrinsically bound with how we are viewed by the world.  While so much of national security thinking is tied to the “how” of our foreign policy – how many ships and troops, what form of diplomatic engagement – American ideals help determine the “why.”  The very purpose of American power is related not only to the protection of home and treasure, but also to the notion that all, everywhere, are equal and entitled to certain inalienable rights.  

In the end, Syria policy will inevitably be about more than chemical weapons, Iran about more than spinning centrifuges, Egypt not only about Camp David and the Sinai, and China policy about more than trade and air defense zones.  In each of these cases, America will be – and be seen as – stronger when it stands up for the fundamental rights of individuals as well as its more narrowly-construed national interests.  There will frequently be tensions between securing those interests and promoting those rights, and it is to resolving those dilemmas that our best national security minds should turn.

In this, Washington is likely to have the support of new international partners.  Countries ranging from those in Europe to India, Japan and Indonesia are involved in human rights promotion and democracy-building activities like never before.  The UN Democracy Fund, the Bali Democracy Forum and other venues provide opportunities for American and partner engagement.  The United States should stand not for the unwanted imposition of American values, but the active support of universal ideals.  This can often be done most effectively with others.

 The insistence of administration officials that human rights reside at the center of the nation’s foreign policy may fade when the pomp of the past week has passed.  That’s when the hard work will resume – to balance our values and our interests, ensuring that we don’t ignore the former with our focus on the latter.

 Richard Fontaine is President of the Center for a New American Security.

(Photo Credit: Voice of America News)