In a pair of speeches that bookended the largely neglected International Human Rights Day on Dec. 10, President Barack Obama and Secretary Hillary Clinton set forth a sophisticated, nuanced and, most importantly, pragmatic message on democracy and human rights.
In a nutshell, the policy is to “remain true to core American principles of human freedom and dignity, restore U.S. credibility on human rights, demand that rules be followed, but above all, stay flexible in how to apply these values to realities on the ground.”
As a former Clinton administration policy adviser on democracy and human rights, I can certainly appreciate the fine line policymakers need to walk in this domain of foreign policy. As we saw during the years of the last Bush administration, a brash approach to democracy promotion can backfire, particularly when our government’s own record on protecting human rights falls so blatantly short of the standards to which we hold others. And as we saw in the first several months of the Obama administration, a timid or ambiguous approach can embolden autocrats to dig their heels in further; it also has encouraged critics to attack the White House for abandoning human rights dissidents and for engaging in shameful exercises of self-flagellation, allegedly weakening our moral standing around the world.