02/13/2015 12:33 pm ET Updated Apr 15, 2015

Double Standards in Our Foreign Policy -- and That's Just the Way It Is

The United States and many of its European allies are often accused of having double standards in the execution of their foreign policy. This criticism is for a reason, and we need to face it as the sometimes inconvenient truth. While we proudly proclaim our value-based foreign policy, many times "pragmatism" sets in, and then human rights, the violation of standards of democracy, corruption and graft, the rejection of which is in our DNA, take a backseat. As a consequence we constantly struggle with ourselves when it comes to double standards. But then our foreign policy is like democracy, a work in progress, and we are better off admitting its realities.

At times we are faced with a terrible dilemma: having to choose between our values, upholding our principles of democracy, human rights, protection of minorities, and the rule of law and our short or long-term security and economic interests. Most of the time we are not honest about this often inherent conflict, about the fact that there are times when support for our values can bring about unacceptable practical consequences. Because we are not candid about this inner conflict, our foreign policy can appear wishy-washy. We must recognize that this dilemma creates inevitable double standards.

We are not making a case for giving up our values. We are not suggesting that our norms be abandoned in the name of pragmatism. On the contrary, we suggest that our commitment to freedom, democracy and human rights must remain the fundamental principle of our foreign policy. Our case is for more openly admitting the limits to the power and the potential endurance of our influence that are imposed by important competing strategic interests. Acknowledgment of the role of pragmatism is honest.

We rely on countries for our security, which have a terrible human rights record and we should admit that security of our nations comes first and this will remain a mainstay of our foreign policy.

Pragmatism however should not be an easy way out of the responsibility for human rights and dignity that we, as democracies, share in the world. We should not suggest that we do not have an influence, when we actually do. There are situations when pushing for respect and dignity for all must be part of our policy, when it is simply immoral and irresponsible to abandon our values. This was demonstrated well in the dying days of the communist system in Eastern Europe, and this must be the case in our policies towards Cuba today. The list is long.

Still the less honest we are about the fact and difficulties of dealing with these multiple realities , the less we will be able to deal with abuses that are within our reach. We must start with our own. There should be no doubts that when it comes to members or aspiring members of the NATO Alliance or the European Union, we must insist upon the rule of law, checks and balances and human rights. While we have limited leverage on Saudi Arabia when it comes to changing the treatment of women and the excesses of punishment, we must be loud and clear that Budapest will have a significant price to pay for upending democracy. That may be a double standard, but so be it.

Russia and other post-Soviet neighbors that are members of the Council of Europe and the OSCE and have subscribed to its principles cannot expect leniency when it comes to human rights violations. Dealing with democracy, the fight against corruption, freedom of speech, and the protection of political and social minorities in these countries must have a high place on our foreign policy agenda, even if we are accused of double standards.

We should differentiate in both our approaches and our choice of tools. We can be and should be open about our rejection of inhumane practices, of suppression of opposition views and abuse of minority group members, but we can and should also be frank and honest about how far we can and will go in terms of imposing our influence or coercion. Such honesty would be helpful to those who are waging fights for democracy on the ground in their own countries, who risk their lives thinking that we will be there to successfully help them when they are imprisoned, tortured and exiled. Rather than fueling false hopes, we should not put them out on a limb. How many times have we encouraged people to speak out only to let them down, leaving them to their destiny?

We repeat: this should not be a case for abandoning our principles. Perhaps it is a long shot for the moment, but we should constantly work so that one day we will be able to travel the whole distance: respect for universal values based on human dignity.

But for now, admitting that we do have double standards will actually bring closer the day when we will not need to live with it no more.