The United States has two distinct approaches to human rights violations in the countries of the former Soviet Union.
When it is in Washington's perceived strategic interest, the U.S. government normally remains quiet. When its strategic interests are not at stake, U.S. officials speak forcefully and work to expose human rights violations and corruption.
This inconsistent approach fuels cynicism toward the United States when it professes support for human rights. The approach also limits the incentives for governments in the region to improve their behavior and it fosters the perception that the United States is not a legitimate global protector of human rights. These inconsistencies become abundantly clear by comparing U.S. officials' public statements on Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Tajikistan and Russia, as shown in a recently published OSF policy paper, "Human Rights and the Failings of U.S. Public Diplomacy in Eurasia."
Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, which provide critical supply routes to U.S. troops in Afghanistan, are rarely criticized. U.S. officials tend to emphasize the positive aspects of the respective countries' behavior while ignoring persistent violations of human rights. When U.S. officials do mention human rights and democracy, they are usually buried at the end of a list of issues. But the United States takes the opposite approach toward Belarus. U.S. officials strongly condemn human rights violations and treat improvements in democratic governance as a requirement for improving bilateral relations.
In Russia, the United States takes a middle-of-the-road approach, addressing human rights and democracy problems while making clear that it considers these issues separate from other areas on which it seeks progress. The volume and stridency of U.S. rhetoric rises and falls depending on the state of play in other areas of the relationship with Russia. This approach underscores the reality that the United States will publicly comment on Russia's human rights and democracy problems only to the extent that its comments will not have a detrimental impact on its other interests.
To be sure, a one-size-fits-all approach to U.S. public diplomacy on human rights and democracy across its many diverse bilateral relationships is not feasible. Nevertheless, the United States should develop a more consistent approach to defending human rights to live up to its own standards. As former Secretary of State Clinton's said in her last television interview:
"... I believe that what we've done is to pioneer the new diplomacy, taking the best and continuing the traditions of... government-to-government negotiations, whether it's a trade treaty or a peace treaty, but also expanding our aperture so that we understand that the United States must tell its story better... must stand for our values more strongly."
The beginning of the second Obama Administration presents an opportunity for the United States to reaffirm its values by taking the following steps:
- Give greater weight to public diplomacy considerations in determining its approach to human rights and democracy. These issues should not only be discussed privately between governments; the United States needs to show the public in the region that it cares enough to speak publicly about these issues.
- Speak more forthrightly about human rights in countries where it has strategic interests. There is significant room to increase pressure on countries such as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, whose governments will not change course without greater pressure from the United States and the international community.
- Weave human rights into discussions of other issues and address them concurrently, rather than "last but not least." Last is least. It is a means of trying to ensure that unpleasant discussions on human rights will not poison discussions on other strategic issues. Treating human rights and democracy on a par with other issues will show the United States' commitment to these issues and encourage real progress.
If the United States starts treating these issues more consistently, leaders of oppressive regimes in the region will know that they will face increased pressure on the international stage if they do not choose to fully respect the rights and freedoms of their citizens. As importantly, their citizens will know that the United States is truly committed to supporting the universal values of human rights and democracy.