Earlier this month, Hu Jia, 36, was denied release from his dark corner of the Chinese prison system. A renowned pro-democracy activist, winner of the 2008 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, and a prisoner of conscience, Hu was denied medical parole to seek life-saving treatment for a potentially cancerous mass that doctors found in his liver. Some days later in Cairo, dozens of protesters flocked to the streets demanding an end to a 29 year-old law that enables the government to detain anyone indefinitely and without trial. At around the same time, the Iranian government banned the Bahar newspaper for the crime of questioning the results of the presidential elections in June and criticizing the theocratic form of government. And on April 26, Sudanese election officials stopped entering data into a secure computer system, making their already-dubious presidential election even more susceptible to fraud.
I couldn’t possibly give an exhaustive list of the human rights issues bubbling to the surface almost every day. For all the talk about “the end of history,” the victory of the neoliberal consensus, and the globalization of democracy, it is clear that repression remains a worldwide problem. In many regions of the world, human rights violations are on the rise. As the Obama administration seeks to separate itself from the policies of its predecessor—whose declared agenda of spreading democratic values was widely seen as “adventurist” and foolhardy—the United States runs the risk of overcompensating. Without necessarily embracing the blunders of the Bush Doctrine, we on the Left should not blush away from the advice of neoconservative analyst William Kristol: “American power should be used not just in the defense of American interests, but for the promotion of American principles.”
The corollary is that the promotion of American principles—that is, a very modest program of liberal democracy, human rights, and social equality—will sometimes be inimical to our “national interest.” In purely realist terms, the U.S. has much to gain by the deal negotiated over the summer that enabled the U.S. to gain access to several Colombian military bases; it will assist in the war against Colombia’s leftist insurgency and help contain Venezuela. But at what cost? Colombia is among the worst human rights violators in the Western hemisphere, where union leaders and journalists are murdered by right-wing paramilitaries at an alarming rate. The U.S. should have made its enormous military commitment contingent upon steps to curb these groups.
The same logic should be applied to other American allies as well. As Iran’s nuclear program progresses, one could argue that the U.S. should avoid breaking ranks with Israel over its outrageous abuses in the West Bank. But the cost of this policy will be continuing human misery, which in the occupied territories manifests itself in ways that are too well-known. Egypt, a state notorious for its president’s sweeping, undemocratic powers, and Israel, are the two largest recipients of bilateral U.S. aid, so the argument that the U.S. has no leverage to compel these nations to reform is demonstrably false.
Of course, this also means confronting our adversaries for their human rights abuses, and not merely in spite of them. There is an unfortunate tendency among the “hard Left” to whitewash the crimes of countries perceived as “anti-American,” and to regard any American or international condemnation of these crimes as unacceptable foreign “meddling.” The stolen presidential elections in Iran provide an illustration of this phenomenon. Who could forget the images of the screaming crowds running away from police gunfire? The faceless basiji authorities hitting women on the street from their motorcycles? The canisters of tear gas? But instead of capitalizing on this historic outburst of popular will by condemning the brutality of the regime, the Obama administration largely sat on its hands under the advice that any external involvement would be used to persecute the protesters as “Western-backed saboteurs”—as if that didn’t happen anyway.
The argument that democracy and human rights cannot be supported from the outside is refuted by history. Needless to say, I don’t have Iraq in mind, where violent intervention resulted in a humanitarian catastrophe and where democracy-promotion was never the highest priority. Rather, I’m referring to U.S. support for reform in the Philippines during the 1980s, which decisively helped the people remove dictator Ferdinand Marcos—a template that should be applied to Iran. Of course, East Asia was a region of the world that had little experience with democracy, a place where some believed that “Western” forms of liberal government could never thrive. But those who consigned the fate of the Philippines to authoritarianism were ultimately wrong, and, in retrospect, foolish.
Without a doubt, the United States is no exemplar of human rights. And it may be beyond our capacity to influence human rights in large nations such as China or Russia. But what I am advocating is a shift in principles: that we not regress back to the game of 19th-century power politics, where states compete with one another for territory and resources with little regard to the political identity of other states. Freedom of expression, fair elections, and individual security are not just incidental “quirks” that countries can choose to follow or disregard in accordance with their own sovereignty. Their tactful promotion is the foundation of any morally conscionable foreign policy.
—Chase Mechanick is a second-year in the College majoring in Political Science.