On human rights, U.S. must lead — or no one will

In the years immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union, one would frequently hear worried musings about the sudden role of the United States, left alone on the world stage as the “World’s Only Superpower.” Some referred contemptuously to the American “hyper-power.”

Now, in an unexpected turn of events, Washington’s harshest critics are asking the United States to take an even greater role in world affairs, but to do it for the sake of protecting human rights across the globe.

Whoever wins the presidential elections, President Obama or Mitt Romney, human-rights activists, including Amnesty International and the ACLU, are imploring him to move decisively to the forefront of world affairs and take a firm stand in order to prevent genocide, human rights abuses and terrorism. The goal is morally defensible — what could be more important than preventing genocide — but it is also one with strategic benefits for the United States.

It turns out the alternative to American leadership is no leadership at all, or not much of one. Often that means conflicts that spiral out of control with disastrous consequences, as we have seen time and time again.

America’s relative power has declined significantly, especially in the last half-decade of economic weakness. The powers whose rise has paralleled the American decline, such as China, have shown no inclination to lift a finger in defense of human rights or for the prevention of conflicts that could devastate civilian populations.

As far as China, and still Russia, are concerned, conflicts are a problem only in that they interfere with trade or with strategic alliances. But the greatest threat, in their view, is a world that gives itself the right to tell other countries to respect freedoms, because they might later come calling in places like Tibet.

As the United States’ ability to shape events diminished, it sought to rely more on international organizations and multilateral partnerships. But time and time again it has become clear that, as Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright put it back in the days of the war in Bosnia, America is “the indispensable nation.”

Back then, Albright was arguing that the United States should step in and stop the slaughter in the Balkans. The massacres ended rather quickly after U.S. fighter planes started slicing across the sky.

In many quarters, American military power is viewed with suspicion. And that’s understandable. But even on the left, among those who care deeply about the suffering of human beings of all nationalities regardless of who their tormentors are, the view that the United States is indispensable is growing. They don’t want to see American soldiers marching across the globe, but they want to see America prevent and solve conflicts and lead the international community to a consensus that human-rights matter.

Amnesty International and the ACLU joined in a group of 22 well-known organizations and individuals who recently released a detailed study of the human-rights challenges facing the world — and the American president. They listed the top 10, along with a plaintive appeal that whoever sits in the Oval Office next year should embrace America’s leadership position.

They didn’t call for the United States to act alone and didn’t necessarily call for military intervention of any kind, but they noted that “U.S. leadership is critical to effectively address international human-rights issues.”

They recommended 10 policies, beginning with the need to “Prioritize U.S. leadership on international norms and universality of human rights.” Not everyone will agree with their second policy recommendation, that America “Act to prevent genocide and mass atrocities,” or the next one, that Washington “Pursue policies that protect people from the threat of terrorism . . . ”

Ideally, American actions to prevent genocide and human-rights abuses would not require military action. Making them a priority would enlist international support and help countries everywhere internalize rules of behavior, and send a message that violating them could have consequences. For that, however, there really must be consequences. That includes international condemnation, economic sanctions and, as a final resort, the use of force.

The authors of the human-rights paper correctly argue that a policy with a strong focus on human rights makes sense strategically. It’s an argument others, including Albright, have made many times before.

When the United States stands for the dignity of individuals against the worst abuses of tyrants, it strengthens its moral core and it becomes a magnet for international support. Doing this is not always easy. It can create enormous practical dilemmas. Still, both Romney and Obama would do well to listen to this group’s advice.

Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer/correspondent, she is the author of The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television.

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