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
September 21, 2014 -- Updated 1750 GMT (0150 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT