In a series of tweets on New Year’s Eve, President Donald J. Trump expressed strong support for Iranians protesting against their autocratic regime. He added that the United States would be “watching very closely for human rights violations!” The president’s pronouncements have been valuable in emphasizing the importance of human rights in Iran. They also mark something of a departure for an administration that has only episodically expressed concern for the protection of fundamental freedoms abroad.
Given the president’s recent focus on human rights, it’s disappointing that the administration’s National Security Strategy, which was released on December 18, gives human rights such short shrift. The NSS emphasizes many familiar Republican foreign policy themes, like the need to deal with China and Russia, confront North Korea and Iran, protect against terrorism and increase military strength—and for those supportive of U.S. global leadership, there is much to like. But the omission of any mention of promoting human rights as a national security priority is striking, and unfortunate. The human rights effort has long been a priority in Republican as well as Democratic administrations. Done right, supporting human rights strengthens, rather than weakens, American national security.
The National Security Strategy is not wholly silent on issues like freedom and democracy. Indeed, a small portion of the document commits the administration to support individual dignity, freedom, and the rule of law. Such good things, however, are cast as “American values,” rather than rights to which all people are entitled. The strategy does make several references to “individual rights” but the term “human rights” appears just once to warn that the United States will deny admission to “human rights abusers.”
Yet acknowledging the existence of universal human rights, and America’s critical role in protecting and promoting them, is more important today than in many years. In its latest 2017 report, Freedom House observed the eleventh consecutive year of decline in global freedom. Sixty-seven countries suffered net declines in civil liberties and political rights, against just thirty-six that posted gains. And the human rights situation has deteriorated not only in the usual dictatorships but also among friends and allies like Turkey, Ethiopia, Hungary, Bahrain and Azerbaijan.
Where the NSS does reference a U.S. role in expanding democracy and freedom, it is largely one of inspiration rather than active promotion. This is America as city on a hill, a shining beacon but little more. “We are not going to impose our values on others,” the document assures readers. “The American way of life cannot be imposed upon others, nor is it the inevitable culmination of progress.”
It precisely because such freedoms are not inevitable that America must play an active role in protecting and advancing them. This requires their vigorous promotion—the United States as actor as well as exemplar. Embracing the cause of basic rights and freedoms gives purpose and direction to America’s role in the world, beyond its narrowly-construed national interests. And it is consonant with precisely those American values that the National Security Strategy is at pains to highlight.
Standing up for fundamental rights abroad does something more: It makes the world safer for Americans and makes us stronger. The NSS acknowledges this implicitly, noting, “Governments that respect the rights of their citizens remain the best vehicle for prosperity, human happiness, and peace.” Given Trump’s repeated emphasis on the importance of national strength and restoring international respect for the United States, his administration should recognize that America is respected around the world not merely for its military might and strong economy but equally for its commitment to human rights and the rule of law.
As the Trump administration begins to implement its new strategy, there are three reasons why it should embrace, rather than reject, a human rights agenda.
First is to resist growing restrictions on freedom in the world. U.S. leadership is necessary to reverse this trend. Human rights will never represent the America’s only foreign policy objective and often will not be the top agenda item in key foreign relationships. But efforts to promote human rights should be interwoven with all else we seek to achieve. The decline in freedom will very likely accelerate the longer America is out of the game.
Second is the general disillusionment with human rights and democracy promotion at home and abroad. Disasters in Iraq and Libya, the Arab Spring’s failures, China’s combination of power and repression, and backsliding in places like Myanmar have all increased doubts about both liberalism’s staying power and America’s ability to aid it. There have been deep disappointments but great successes as well, and Washington should examine the drivers of that distinction and act on the lessons.
The third reason is about us. The NSS argues that “America First” means more than safeguarding our security and prosperity at the expense of any others. But the world—and many Americans—genuinely wonder about the Trump administration’s lack of international altruism. A fulsome embrace of human rights would demonstrate to all the country’s nobility of purpose at a time when confidence in the United States is shaky.
All this would require a shift of presidential emphasis and philosophy. We must hope that the president’s support for freedom in Iran reflects a new recognition of the role that the United States—and the president himself—play in championing human rights around the world. If the president declines to play this role, Congress and civil society will need to increase their own efforts to ensure that the United States continues to promote international human rights. It’s critical that they do so. Few efforts could be better tailored to making America great again.
This post originally appeared on Lawfare, published in cooperation with the Brookings Institution.