THE BLOG

The Perils of Pragmatism

12/16/2009 05:38 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the past week the Obama administration has taken steps to clarify and disseminate its policy with respect to the promotion of human rights and democracy. Following on the heels of an administration that liked to define the purpose of U.S. foreign policy as expanding freedom around the world and ending tyranny, the Obama administration has looked for a different approach and a different vocabulary to describe the place of human rights promotion in the foreign policy mix.

This quest for a new policy message has looked like "downplaying human rights" to some, so the administration's efforts may be seen as a response to its critics.

In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Oslo on December 10, President Obama spoke about the interconnectedness of peace and human rights and made clear his commitment to human rights promotion. Interestingly, the language of his speech took a concept found in ringing declarative tones in President George W. Bush's Second Inaugural Address. "America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one" and expressed it as a double negative: speaking about the inherent rights and dignity of every individual, President Obama said, "neither America's interests-- nor the world's-- are served by the denial of human aspirations." In other words, just like his predecessor, President Obama affirmed that human rights promotion serves the national interest of the United States of America.

National Security Advisor, General James Jones, was more forthright in a statement he issued after a meeting he convened with leaders of U.S. based human rights organizations at the White House, also on December 10. Jones's statement said that in the meeting he had "reiterated the President's strong and unwavering commitment to the advancement of human rights and democracy around the world," and he listed the administration's achievements to date.

Secretary Clinton gave the fullest exposition of the administration's human rights agenda in her remarks at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. on December 14. Secretary Clinton was on message in her remarks, but she brought in another element, "principled pragmatism" that the administration's critics will see as equivocation and weakness in its human rights promotion policies. Critics will note particularly that Secretary Clinton used the phrase when referring to U.S. relationships with "key countries," specifically China and Russia.

Secretary Clinton came under fire early in the administration when remarks she made to journalists were interpreted as suggesting that she viewed human rights concerns as something that interfered with U.S. efforts to advance vital strategic interests in key bi-lateral relationships, such as that with China. By first enumerating the global issues at stake in these relationships - the global economy, nuclear non-proliferation, North Korea and Iran, and climate change - and only then listing human rights concerns in these two countries she managed to give the impression that she sees human rights as one item on a long agenda and not as a central guiding principle that provides the framework within which other strategic interest can be advanced.

Despite the administration's efforts over the past week, doubts will persist over whether human rights promotion is really a strategic imperative for this administration, or is it an aspirational goal that may be traded, pragmatically, for other strategic goals? The more Secretary Clinton talks about flexibility and adapting our tactics "to reflect the reality on the ground," the more some will see fudging and weakness. It is one thing to describe and analyze a policy, but quite another to promote, inspire and lead the implementation of it in practice. Those struggling to exercise and realize their universal rights in places like Burma, Iran, China or Russia will not necessarily find sustenance in Secretary Clinton's densely argued remarks.

A positive aspect of Secretary Clinton's remarks at Georgetown was that she emphasized that the administration's human rights promotion policies will be judged on their results. This opens the door for its human rights performance to be evaluated not on the basis of what it claims to have done or not done, but by the impact of those actions on real people in places around the world. Meeting with human rights defenders, spending money on democracy and governance projects and even joining the Human Rights Council, while all potentially useful activities, are not in themselves measurable outcomes. It is encouraging that the administration is not prepared just to settle for activity on human rights; rather, it will seek positive results.

The administration does deserve credit for agreeing on and beginning to articulate the elements of a coherent human rights agenda. The agenda has four parts: 1) that the United States itself should uphold international human rights standards in its own practices; 2) that human rights promotion is a global obligation that the United States will pursue through multilateral institutions; 3) that the United States will pursue dual-track diplomacy in seeking to advance human rights through bi-lateral relationships, engaging both governments and people ; and 4) promotion of a broad vision of human rights encompassing both civil and political and economic and social rights.

This is an agenda that will find traction and support in many parts of the world and, if implemented constantly and in a sustained manner over time, promises results. There are many forces in the world that will wish to see this agenda fail. We are coming to the end of a brutal decade for human rights and democracy that has seen the euphoria of the post Cold War period brought down to earth, so the challenges are great.

In the ashes of the Second World War the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had no doubt that the choice facing the world was between barbarism and respect for human rights. That truth has not changed over the last sixty years. In the past week, the administration took some important steps towards acknowledging this reality and beginning to act on it. Now it must move forward with practical measures that make a positive difference in people's lives.