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Why promoting freedom and human rights is in our national interest

Amanda Schnetzer delivered testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee on July 11, 2016. This essay is an adaptation of that testimony.

Article by Amanda Schnetzer July 21, 2016 //   5 minute read

Substantially more people experience liberty today than at the end of World War II, but more than half the world’s population still lives in countries where basic political rights and civil liberties are only partly respected, if at all. The last decade in particular has not been good for freedom.

For ten consecutive years, Freedom House has documented a worrisome “decline in global freedom.” The National Endowment for Democracy has warned of authoritarian regimes cracking down at home while also “seeking to reshape the international order and democratic norms.”

From China to Russia to the Middle East, the challengers to liberalism are gaining ground.  It is in the direct and immediate interest of the United States to help shift the balance by supporting the advance of human rights and freedom abroad.

It is in the direct and immediate interest of the United States to support the advance of human rights and freedom abroad. The current mood in the United States does not appear conducive to this strategy.

The current mood in the United States does not appear conducive to this strategy. New Pew Research polling shows that 69 percent of Americans believe the United States should “concentrate more on our own national problems.” Seventy percent want the next U.S. president to focus on domestic policy over foreign policy.

Yet in order to address the “major threats” that keep Americans awake at night — ISIS, foreign cyberattacks, global economic instability, the spread of infectious diseases, the refugee crisis — strong U.S. leadership is required, as are strategies that help advance rule of law, good governance, open markets, and other features of free societies.

So where do we go from here?

One step would be for policymakers, presidential candidates, and other public office hopefuls to make the promotion of democracy and human rights an important part of their foreign policy agendas. This March, 139 policy experts, civil society leaders, and former elected officials—Republicans and Democrats alike—signed a letter encouraging the presidential candidates to do just that.

While recognizing that “democracy and human rights cannot be the only items on the foreign policy agenda,” the letter calls it a “false choice” to pit the pursuit of democratic ideals against national security. I was proud to sign that letter.

A second step would be to engage the American people in a conversation about the impact of advancing freedom on our own peace, prosperity, and security.

At the end of World War II, for example, many questioned whether democracy was compatible with Germany and Japan. The United States actively supported the development of democratic institutions and practices. Today, Germany and Japan are among our strongest partners and allies in the world, and Americans reap tangible benefits.

In North Texas, where the Bush Institute is located, the relocation of Toyota’s North American headquarters is expected to create jobs and have an economic impact of $7 billion in the first ten years, according to estimates when the move was announced.

During the Cold War, the United States supported democratic reform in places like Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Chile. The end of the Cold War was a major victory for freedom in Central and Eastern Europe. After decades of Soviet nuclear threat, it also was a great victory for American peace and security.

Today, the moral and strategic imperatives of advancing human rights are just as compelling.  In Afghanistan, investing in women promotes stability and helps reduce the possibility of future terrorist attacks on the United States emanating from that country.  In the Middle East, the spread of Islamic extremism and ISIS has had devastating consequences, and the United States is not immune.  In North Korea, a regime that systematically and horrifically abuses the rights of its own people seeks nuclear weapons that can reach our shores.

In these and other places, it is in the interests of the United States to see the forces of freedom eventually prevail.

A third step would be to find opportunities for immediate bipartisan action. Both Republican and Democrat presidents have affirmed the U.S. commitment to standing for freedom at home and leading the advance of freedom abroad. Congress, too, has played an important role. 

Ensuring continued support for democracy and development assistance overseas, promoting progress on human rights in trade and economic agreements, and continuing support for initiatives like the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) that relieve human suffering are just some of the options available to policymakers today. 

In the current political environment, this may be a tall order, but the stakes at home and abroad are high and American leadership is essential.