Skip to main content

Is America the moral leader in the world?

By Michael Barnett, Special to CNN
updated 4:31 PM EDT, Wed July 4, 2012
America's support for human rights has had its ups and downs, says Michael Barnett.
America's support for human rights has had its ups and downs, says Michael Barnett.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Michael Barnett: Fourth of July is also about celebrating our values, like human rights
  • Barnett: America has not fallen behind in providing moral leadership in the world
  • He says the current period is no different from earlier times, it is not "unusual" or "cruel"
  • Barnett: Simply put, the U.S. has consistently chosen national interests over values

Editor's note: Michael Barnett is a professor of international affairs and political science at George Washington University. He is the author, most recently, of "The Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism."

(CNN) -- Independence Day is a celebration not just of America's independence, but also of the values that are important to our nation, like liberty, democracy and human rights.

Recently, former President Jimmy Carter suggested that America should be a little less self-congratulatory and a little more self-critical. He was concerned that America is abandoning its role as a leading advocate for human rights. It is hard to disagree with some of his observations. But, America has not fallen behind in providing moral leadership in the world. The current period is no different from earlier decades. It is not, as Carter said, either "cruel" or "unusual."

There is no doubt that both the Bush and Obama administrations have trampled on fundamental human rights norms on the grounds that certain sacrifices must be made in order to protect American national interests. The question naturally arises: Couldn't the United States have found ways to fight terrorism without turning human rights into collateral damage?

Michael Barnett
Michael Barnett

There is evidence that sacrificing human rights has not made America any safer. For instance, the increased use of drone attacks might or might not have disrupted terror networks in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but we do know that they have killed and injured countless civilians and inflamed anti-American rhetoric. The issue isn't whether the United States will be able to win a popularity contest in the region (this is doubtful even in the best of times), but rather, that alienating large swaths of the local population makes it much more difficult to defeat terrorism.

Where to find exceptional America

Similarly, in the name of counterterrorism, the United States has pursued worrisome policies, including targeted assassinations overseas and intrusions on civil liberties. While our country's counterterrorism policies have compromised its respect for human rights norms, a little perspective is needed. America's human rights policy is bigger than its counterterrorism policy. We should not judge the record on the basis of how the United States has fought terrorism.

We have made good strides. In the last 10 years, the United States has been one of the largest supporters of the International Committee of the Red Cross, despite the fact that the Red Cross makes it a point to remind the United States and other governments of their commitments to international humanitarian law. The Obama administration has championed women's rights and reproductive health, children's rights, religious rights and other areas of central concern to the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world. And although the United States still refuses to become a full-fledged member of the International Criminal Court, it has begun to play a supporting role.

When the United States speaks about human rights, other countries listen. We do not need a perfect score from Human Rights Watch to have our views respected. When other countries choose not to listen to the United States or follow its lead, it is not necessarily because we do not practice what we preach; instead, it is because those countries see human rights as a potential threat to their rule. Even if the United States had an unblemished human rights record, the Bashar al-Assads of this world are still going to massacre their people and authoritarian governments will still imprison and torture their dissidents.

On the other hand, we must not redact the inconvenient truths of American foreign policy. Looking further back into our history, our record in international human rights is a mixed bag.

During the Cold War, successive administrations indulged dictators on the grounds that it was necessary for containing Communism. Shamefully, the United States did not ratify the genocide convention until 1988. The Clinton administration did nothing to stop the Rwandan genocide in 1994. The world ratified the International Criminal Court in 2002 without our participation. The United States also has repeatedly censored its own views on China's human rights record for fear of hurting a key strategic and economic relationship.

We're No. 1! We're No. 1! We're ... uh ... not?

Even in better days, the United States has often made rotten compromises in the name of security. Simply put, the United States has championed human rights when it sees no damage to its security and economic interests. But when human rights are perceived as potentially detrimental to national interests, the United States has consistently chosen interests over values.

America's support for human rights has had its ups and downs. Hopefully, in the future we'll see more ups than downs, and have more to celebrate.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael Barnett.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 1:10 PM EDT, Sat April 19, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT