Co-Authored by Carrie Lukas
In a recent interview with the BBC, President Obama said “the U.S. cannot impose its values on other nations.” That sounds like common sense in this era of multiculturalism: Who are we to suggest that we know better how society should be ordered? It may be a part of the Obama administration’s new, humble foreign policy, but it's the same awkward moral relativism that has pervaded our culture for decades.
Yet, when it comes to respect for human rights and individual liberty, all countries are not created equally. President Obama knows this, and attempted to thread the needle between expressing a desire not to impose and rhetorically maintain the U.S. commitment to advancing human rights. He explained: “Democracy, rule of law, freedom of speech, freedom of religion -- those are not simply principles of the West to be hoisted on these countries, but rather what I believe to be universal principles that they can embrace and affirm as part of their national identity."
Undoubtedly, the leaders of other countries disagree. Freedom of speech is hardly a value embraced by North Korea, which has just locked up two American journalists. China isn’t exactly keen on democracy—or freedom of religion for that matter. And of course, there are the recent demonstrations in Iran, where foreign journalists were thrown out of the country and protestors were arrested, forced to do televised “confessions,” and, in some tragic cases, shot dead by the pro-government Basij militia.
Women’s rights are supposed to be one of those universal principles, as President Obama acknowledged in his speech to the Muslim world in Cairo. He noted that the U.S. will support literacy and economic opportunities for women around the globe. Yet he failed to live up to his promise to discuss the problem “squarely.” Indeed by saying “the struggle for women's equality continues in many aspects of American life,” he belittled the real plight of women around the globe.
In many places, women are treated brutally and denied basic rights. In Iran, women can be stoned to death for alleged sexual offenses. Women in Africa are often raped by soldiers who consider it a normal method of waging war. Women in Saudi Arabia are not permitted to be alone in public or to drive. In growing parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan, girls are denied access to basic education.
The United States needs to be a strong, unequivocal voice saying that this is wrong, and regimes that allow such practices fail their people.
Those who suggest that Obama is simply engaging in a game of semantics—rhetorically opposing “imposing” American values while remaining just as committed to their advancement—ignore disturbing early signs from the Administration that the issue of human rights, and women’s rights, has been downgraded as an American priority.
During Obama’s much ballyhooed campaign trip to Europe, human rights were barely mentioned in his speeches. After the election, in his first interview as President (to the Dubai based Al-Arabiya network), Obama explained that his Administration would be doing things differently because “all too often the United States starts by dictating.” In February, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited China and to the shock of many within the human rights world, failed to mention human rights to her hosts. Questioned afterwards about the omission, the Secretary explained that “our pressing on those issues can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis.”
The United States has served as a beacon of hope for oppressed people everywhere. Indeed, dissidents during the Cold War described the importance of knowing that America existed and was giving voice to their cause. What message are we are sending today, to the prisoners in Fidel’s jails in Havana; the pro-democracy activists in Venezuela; the government reformers and journalists in Russia; and to the women living in subjugation in the Middle East?
The United States needs to be a strong and vocal advocate for freedom to all audience. To do that President Obama needs to recognize that some values are worth imposing.
Carrie Lukas is the vice president for policy and economics at the Independent Women’s Forum and Julie Gunlock is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.