Six years after President Obama took the oath of office, the world is more dangerous than ever. Just in the last few weeks, Russia launched airstrikes in Syria under the guise of fighting ISIL and instead handed the terrorist group more land. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is again spiraling out of control, each side hurtling accusations of human rights violations. After a sham trial, Iran convicted an American reporter of spying. Syrian migrants are spilling into Europe at an unprecedented rate. But throughout it all, U.S. action has been eerily absent.
On paper, one would think this administration was as committed to human rights as any, the most recent National Security Strategy calling human rights the “underpinning” of our world agenda, and “related to every enduring national interest.” Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech promised that the U.S. would “support [human rights] everywhere.” Obama has been one of the few Presidents in American history to place women’s issues prominently in our foreign policy, calling the promotion of gender equality “vital to achieving our overall foreign policy objectives.” On his recent Kenya trip, he defended gay rights in a strongly homophobic nation, an unprecedented move by an American president.
But despite all its promises of “insist[ing] that governments uphold their human rights obligations,” the Obama Administration has practiced a rigid pragmatism, narrowly defining the national interest in a way so as to avoid world entanglements. Promoting human rights has fallen to a dismally low concern, and has remained largely absent in discussions over our most pressing regional concerns, most obviously in Syria, Iran, and Cuba.
As renowned writer Michael Gerson puts it, Obama’s “weary realism” in Syria has led to “the largest humanitarian failure in the Obama era.” Obama’s aversion to engaging in another conflict in the Middle East led him to ignore Syrian pleas for assistance, balk when Assad crossed the ‘red line,’ and largely stand by as hundreds of thousands died and millions fled. Human rights took a backseat in nuclear negotiations with Iran, and though the Administration promised to address them once the deal went through, we sacrificed what might have been our most significant chance to effect real humanitarian change in Iran. Moreover, the administration was widely criticized for normalizing relations with Cuba without any sort of agreement regarding the treatment of Cuban people.
Syria, Iran, and Cuba are not the only cases in which the President has failed to live up to his human rights promises. Despite a professed commitment to promoting gender equality, the United States still has yet to ratify CEDAW, a UN treaty known as the “international bill of rights for women.” President Obama has declined to extend abortion services to women raped by Boko Haram and ISIL. We did little as Russia annexed Crimea, and other than half-heartedly voicing differing approaches to human rights during Xi Jinping’s recent visit, the U.S. has done virtually nothing to address human rights in China.
At the same time, however, Obama’s coldly pragmatic approach ensured that the U.S. avoided fighting another Middle Eastern ground war, helped secure an Iranian nuclear deal, and restored relations with a country we’ve isolated since the Cold War. Those are indeed grand achievements, but at what cost? According to Gerson, “At some point, being ‘modest’ becomes the same thing as being inured to atrocities.”
The administration has underestimated the influence the United States has in the world. To be unwilling to act for human rights greatly damages U.S. soft power and its reputation as being the world’s beacon for democracy and equality. By choosing to shift away from a focus on human rights, we are taking them out of the conversation entirely – Iran is not likely to halt a nuclear deal over concerns of the way the U.S. treats its citizens. While striving to achieve multilateral action in foreign interventions is important, the lack of cooperation or willingness of other countries to intervene does not absolve the United States of the responsibility to protect those most affected by humanitarian crises. Especially given that both Russia and China have United Nation Security Council vetoes, foreign cooperation in cases like Syria may be near impossible.
Though people such as Harvard Professor Michael Ignatieff contend that Western notions of human rights are “unthinkingly imperialist,” U.S. foreign policy need not be imperialist to accomplish basic human rights goals. We do not need to create conflicts over human rights in regions of the world in which we have no other interest. It should, however, be a matter of expectation that when dealing with some of the world’s most repressive regimes – Syria, Iran, Cuba, Russia, and China – that human rights are not cast aside in favor of callously pragmatic agreements that satisfy other interests in the hopes that we can one day later revisit human rights concerns. If the administration is to describe human rights as the “underpinning” of our foreign policy, then a significantly more interventionist policy is needed to vindicate that promise.