President Obama's speech at Cairo University today was not only an opportunity for him to address "the Muslim world," it was also his first major speech from an authoritarian, undemocratic country. In the broader context of how U.S. foreign policy treats questions relating to human rights and democracy, the message he delivered to authoritarian leaders and to their people may be just as consequential as the new beginning he proposed in relations between the United States and Muslims.
There has been much focus on what the Cairo speech means for U.S. policy in the Middle East - from the peace process to nuclear proliferation and even with respect to human rights and democracy promotion there. Finding the right tone and adopting the right policies in these areas will be challenging enough, and yet the question of how the Obama administration will demonstrate its adherence to universal values of human rights in its relations with key strategic allies who routinely and even systematically violate those rights is a problem with a global scale.
Looked at in that context, the Cairo speech was easy. Egypt and the United States genuinely share common strategic interests in working towards a more peaceful, more stable region in which threats from violent extremists are much diminished. The Egyptian government willingly talks the talk of democratic reform, and many Egyptian leaders even seem to believe it. Helping the Egyptian government do what it says it wants to do is certainly challenging, but the challenges are not insurmountable.
In that respect, there was much to welcome in the tone of the President's speech, notably the emphasis on partnership and on the promotion of human rights as a mutual interests between the United States and other governments. A more successful U.S. human rights promotion strategy for Egypt must focus on making the Egyptian government a partner and build on the commitments and pledges the Egyptian government has already made to improve human rights conditions.
Consider then the really tough challenges that lie ahead with less amenable governments.
This week marks the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre and the administration has had difficulty demonstrating concern about human rights in China, while it continues to rely on the Chinese government for cooperation on everything from the economy to climate change. to the crisis in North Korea.
In July, President Obama travels to Moscow for a summit with his Russian counterpart, Dmitri Medvedev and the launch of the trumpeted "reset" in U.S.-Russian relations. Russia's precipitous slide into authoritarianism under Vladimir Putin has been a great boon to anti-American autocrats the world over for the past eight years. A continuation of this slide threatens further instability in the former Soviet Union and a host of developments in the region and beyond that would be damaging to U.S. interests. Moreover, the Russian government - admittedly less so under Medvedev, although he has yet to prove that he can move Russian policy in a new direction - directly challenges values like democracy and human rights. The Russian government doesn't just disregard and violate these standards; it also insists it is right to do so.
The Bush administration had a clear message on U.S. support for freedom and democracy everywhere, but its policies failed to live up to the rhetoric. It is encouraging that President Obama made clear in Cairo the United States' unequivocal support for human rights "everywhere." With that commitment comes an obligation to develop policies that will give hope to people living under repressive governments everywhere.
Cairo was a first chance, on relatively friendly ground, to begin to set out a policy of human rights promotion. He made a good start, but President Obama can be sure that people from Moscow to Beijing and from Rangoon to Havana, as well as in Cairo, Damascus and Tehran, will have been hanging on every word he said, and will now be looking even more closely at what he and the United States government go on to do in the Middle East and beyond.