When Secretary of State Dean Acheson outlined, on January 12, 1950, what he termed America’s “defensive perimeter” in Asia, his failure to include South Korea went largely unnoticed in the United States. Only when the North Korean dictator, Kim Il Sung, launched the invasion of South Korea five months later did people start questioning Acheson’s omission.
What American officials say and, sometimes more importantly, do not say is followed closely in foreign capitals. Everything from speeches and off-the-cuff statements to personnel changes and department budget allocations is scrutinized by trained observers. Most Americans have no idea just how closely.
As Hillary Clinton was unpacking her bags at the State Department, for example, the eyes of observers in foreign capitals were intently following some of her new colleagues who were packing up their bags at the same time: the staff of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL). The majority of the staff charged with championing human rights, democracy, and labor rights abroad were being moved to offices outside the main State Department building.
The question was why. The official explanation given by the Obama administration was that the main State Department building is set to undergo renovations next autumn, and the DRL’s office space needed to be cleared out now. Foreign observers, however, were looking for clues as to whether the exodus from the second and seventh floors signified changing policy priorities.
When a new administration takes over in Washington, one of the most important questions for foreign capitals from Damascus to Naypyidaw is how it will prioritize human rights. From this, dictators and kleptocrats can calculate how much they can get away with without provoking a response from Washington.
The Obama administration is not expected to follow the approach of President Carter, who linked every aspect of foreign relations to human rights and halted talks whenever human rights were abused. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, for example, President Carter withdrew the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty from the Senate and cut off talks with the Soviets. This approach would not fit with President Obama’s pledge to engage America’s adversaries.
The options open for Obama, therefore, are simply to downgrade the importance of human rights in American foreign policy, or else to take a more nuanced path along the lines developed by President Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz. The Reagan administration worked hard on a system that enabled the U.S. to discuss human rights and other important issues simultaneously with hostile states — and to achieve progress on both fronts.
The Reagan-Shultz method involved sticking to a broad agenda and keeping all issues on the table. As Mr. Shultz wrote in his memoirs: “We were determined not to allow the Soviets to focus our negotiations simply on matters of arms control. So we continuously adhered to a broad agenda: human rights, regional issues, arms control, and bilateral issues.” This allowed America to win important concessions from the Soviets on arms control — and on human rights.
The Reagan administration’s approach has been outlined to President Obama by one of his key advisers, Michael McFaul. The Stanford political-science professor, who served as an advisor to President Obama’s campaign team and was appointed as a special assistant to the president for national-security affairs, cited the Reagan-Shultz approach approvingly on July 7, 2008, on the Democracy Arsenal website, arguing that the same should apply to dealings with Iran.
Some of President Obama’s rhetoric points toward a sympathy for this approach. One focus of his campaign was on restoring America’s reputation around the world. That reputation is linked to America’s standing as a champion of liberty and human rights for the oppressed. In his inauguration address he memorably said: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
At the same time, however, foreign observers also noted that in both President Obama’s election-night speech and his inauguration address, and in Mrs. Clinton’s opening remarks at the State Department, the words “human rights” and “freedom” did not appear. Mrs. Clinton went even further during her trip to China, explicitly saying that she would not raise human-rights issues with Beijing, because these issues “can’t interfere” with the more pressing issues of climate change and the economy.
The next few weeks, as the Obama administration’s approach becomes clear, will be closely followed in foreign capitals. What the administration decides to say — and not say — will have huge ramifications for human rights worldwide. After Acheson’s lesson, subsequent administrations cannot say they weren’t warned of the need to choose their words, and silences, carefully.
– Daniel Freedman is the director of policy analysis and communications of the Soufan Group, a strategic-consultancy company.