Skip to main content

Is America the moral leader in the world?

By Michael Barnett, Special to CNN
July 4, 2012 -- Updated 2031 GMT (0431 HKT)
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
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT