Analysts and advocates have given a generally warm welcome to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s speech this week, which made the case for “principled pragmatism” in promoting democracy and human rights.
David J. Kramer, assistant secretary of state for human rights and democracy during the Bush administration, praised the speech’s reaffirmation of bipartisan commitment to democracy assistance.
He believes that some officials were initially too focused on distancing the Democrats from the legacy of the Bush administration’s Freedom Agenda. “They wanted to distance themselves from it. But I think they made a mistake,” Kramer said.
Autocratic regimes would be engaged where necessary and policy would be driven by the need to “make a difference, not prove a point.” Mrs. Clinton rejected an “either/or” approach pitting democracy and human rights against national security interests, insisting that rights issues would be raised behind closed doors if necessary.
T. Kumar, Amnesty USA’s advocacy director for Asia and the Pacific, welcomed the speech, but insisted that public pronouncements must complement the low-profile approach. “We want to ensure that closed-door negotiations are complemented by public pressure,” he told AFP.
Similarly, Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, suggested that authoritarian regimes may view the administration as too timid.
“The perception in China is that the United States is confronting the government less on human rights because we owe them money,” he said. “Every sign of reticence on human rights becomes a metaphor for American weakness.”
Mrs. Clinton’s speech invoked President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize address to articulate a holistic approach that linked human rights and democracy to developmental imperatives.
The administration has been accused of downgrading democracy, not least in the Middle East, and for failing to support Iran’s green opposition movement. Such grievances were raised when a group of human rights and democracy advocates last week met with Gen. James Jones, the national security adviser.
Mrs. Clinton’s speech was, in effect, a rebuttal of the administration’s critics, boldly re-asserting the U.S. commitment to democracy and human rights.
“This Administration, like others before us, will promote, support, and defend democracy,” she insisted:
We will relinquish neither the word nor the idea to those who have used it too narrowly, or to justify unwise policies. We stand for democracy not because we want other countries to be like us, but because we want all people to enjoy the consistent protection of the rights that are naturally theirs… Democracy has proven the best political system for making human rights a human reality over the long term.
Administration officials insist that the U.S. is regaining the moral high ground while recognizing the constraints of operating in a multipolar world.
“The world still looks to the United States to be a force in human rights,” said Michael H. Posner, assistant secretary of state for democracy and human rights. “But we are in a world where governments, as a whole, have less power than they once did. Let’s take the world as we now see it.”
Mrs. Clinton’s speech reflects the more muscular approach to foreign policy taken by President Obama in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech.
While some predicted the administration would eventually embrace democracy as a central foreign policy concern, the accelerated shift has surprised observers.
Some observers suggest that the shift is due less to complaints from democracy advocates – including recent criticism from within the Democratic foreign policy elite – but largely attributable to the manifest failure of the previous policy of multilateralism, engagement and humility:
There’s been no tangible result from his attempts to engage Iran, North Korea, Syria and other rogues; no clear progress toward Middle East peace; no new steps toward global disarmament. The war in Afghanistan — something the Nobel judges no doubt look on with disfavor — just got a lot bigger.
“Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary,” wrote the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, a figure known to influence Obama’s approach to foreign policy.
David Brooks suggests that Obama has reverted to the Niebuhrian tradition of cold war liberalism, drawing on “America’s history as a vehicle for democracy, prosperity and human rights.”
President Obama’s “reasons for demoting human rights may have been well intentioned — even if the strategy isn’t working out as he planned,” wrote Joshua Kurlantzick, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
His Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech sent a signal that “the world had better get ready for a tougher, less forgiving, more quintessentially American approach from a man who certainly gave the soft touch a try,” writes Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Obama “went further than he ever had in arguing that for the United States, advancing democracy is not only a moral but also a strategic imperative,” he notes.