Thank you to Rachel and all the members of the Truman family for the support you gave me during my long and winding road to confirmation. The process of getting into government has gotten a bit strange in America. A friend of mine suggested what I think is a good analogy: it’s like living “The Shawshank Redemption,” but in reverse. You start out on a beautiful beach, under the sun, surrounded by friends. You then tunnel through crap ... to break into prison. And in the end, you’re convicted of a crime you didn’t commit. By a jury of your peers.
And yet we still do it. Many of you have, and many of you, I hope, will. Because, I think, these jobs give purpose to our lives, if we approach them with a sense of purpose. I’ll tell you a little story at the end that illustrates what I mean.
I first met Rachel more than ten years ago on a visit to Oxford, where she was hanging out playing croquet and Pooh Sticks, punting to picnics by the Thames, and inventing progressive national security organizations. She told me about her idea for the Truman Project. It would be an organization for young progressives, and strive to appeal to thoughtful people from both parties, encouraging a principled alternative to existing policies, rather than reflexive opposition. It would mobilize a generation that came of age after the Cold War ended, but who wanted a foreign policy inspired by the ideals for which we waged that struggle.
Truman recognized that it was good—indeed, progressive—to have a freedom agenda. That President Bush was right when he said trading liberty for security in the Middle East had left us with neither. That hollow, authoritarian regimes driving people to despair eventually would drive them to resistance. That one could protest the war in Iraq, and still see Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime as the greater evil. That one could criticize the mistakes that plunged Iraq into chaos and enabled the Taliban’s resurgence, but still applaud a turn to the counterinsurgency strategy of winning hearts and minds – a principle that liberal internationalists had long believed in, and their opponents once derided as nation building.
In other words, moral clarity was good and necessary. But Truman also believed that moral clarity was nothing without moral authority. America could not lead the free world by showing disdain for democratic allies, international institutions, and international law. We could not build a rules-based international order if we acted as if rules were only for others.
In January, 2009 the first order of business for the Obama administration was to renew and strengthen the moral authority that is the foundation of US leadership in the world. President Obama did that. He definitively ended the use of torture, committed to closing Guantanamo, put in place a more focused and discriminating campaign against al Qaeda, kept his promise to wind down our war in Iraq, reinvested in diplomacy, got us on the UN Human Rights Council, where we started winning fights with the Cubans and Iranians instead of walking away, and deployed our military against a dictator in the Middle East with clear moral purpose, with our allies, and the full support of the UN.
We still argue over ethical and legal issues, among ourselves, and with friends abroad. When and how can new technologies, like drones, be used to target terrorists? How should we protect both security and privacy in a digital age? We have not resolved all these questions. But I’m happy to work for an administration that when it does face controversy does so by listening to its critics and acknowledging legitimate concerns. Even if you aren’t fully satisfied with every decision we’ve made, I hope you’ll agree that the manner in which America has made these decisions in the last five years projects a model of open, democratic governance of which we can be proud.
Now, none of this was meant as an end in itself. The whole point of restoring moral authority was to increase our ability to do good and important things in the world-- as President Obama put it in his first inaugural address, “…ready to lead once more.” Every single person in this room would like us to do more somewhere. And I’m one of them.
But in those moments when I despair of problems we have not yet solved, I think about the world as it existed when I came to Washington after graduating from college in 1988: The Cold War struggle had given us clarity and purpose, but also cramped our ambitions and our hopes. A year before the Berlin Wall fell, few people imagined we’d even have the chance to bring democratic nations for Estonia to Bulgaria into a Europe whole and free, or that we’d ever see free elections in places like Indonesia, Afghanistan or Libya. A dictator in the Middle East was using chemical weapons then, too, but the United States was supporting him, not struggling with the dilemma of how to help his victims.
I remind myself that today, America is doing more, in more corners of the world, than any time in our history. Each day, the most senior people in our government are trying to save lives in places that were not exactly foreign policy priorities when I last served in government in the 1990s: the Central African Republic, South Sudan, the Rakhine State of Burma, Burundi. While at the same time confronting a first order threat to the security of Europe, dealing with a multipronged crisis in Syria, encouraging a political and security transition in Afghanistan, shoring up fragile states from Libya to Yemen to Honduras, trying to reach a comprehensive agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, preserving the peace in Asia, and enlarging the world’s understanding of human rights and pushing back a global assault on civil society and LGBT people. My new colleagues are too busy managing a steady incline in America’s responsibilities in the world to think about the strange notion that we should be managing decline.
There is a paradox, however. Even as we have achieved so much, even as we are called to do more, the public constituency for meeting hard challenges around the world, and for doing so with confidence and hope, is arguably getting weaker.
I don’t want to exaggerate this. During the 1990s, opinion polls showed that the percentage of Americans who supported getting involved in places like Rwanda and Bosnia was roughly the same as the percentage that supported intervening in Libya and Syria in the last few years. And I would never suggest that public ambivalence over distant entanglements, which is a healthy part of our political culture, absolves our elected leaders from making hard decisions when they judge that our interests and values are threatened. In her book on genocide, Samantha Power recounted American officials telling a group of human rights activists in 1994 that if they wanted the US to stop the massacres in Rwanda, they had to generate more public pressure. I’ve promised myself I would never shift responsibility like that if I ever had responsibility in government again.
Still, I am struck that the public anguish and activism we confronted in the Clinton years over Rwanda, Bosnia, and Kosovo has not been as present recently when it comes to Syria, or Libya, or Ukraine, or South Sudan.
I get the ambivalence. If you’re 30 years old, you’ve spent most of your adult life watching the United States get into trouble in dangerous, complicated places, and then seeing President Obama, even as he channeled our idealism, dedicate much of his first term to disentangling us from the unintended consequences of poorly executed interventions. If that’s your frame of reference, rather than Roosevelt liberating Europe, or Truman creating NATO, or Kennedy defending Berlin, or Reagan talking down that wall, or Clinton ending genocide in Bosnia, then it is easy to be wary of calls for ending far away injustices rather than considering whether, when and how we can do it better.
It is also natural, given recent experience, to accept the two main arguments against getting involved in humanitarian and human rights crises – that it’s not really in our national interest to do so, and that when we try, we’re powerless to make things right, and often make things worse. If you believe, as I do, in a values-based foreign policy for a rules-based world, then you must respect and answer both arguments against it. I’ll do my best right now.
With respect to our national interests, let me try a couple of propositions for you.
First, at bottom, human rights is a way of arranging human society so that all people have a chance to pursue their ambitions within rules that require fair play and prohibit coercion. When such rules break down, the people who rise tend to be those most willing and able to muster force to impose their will. Most of those people will be run of the mill thugs. But some will be true sociopaths, the sort responsible for history’s greatest calamities. Establishing and spreading respect for human rights is the best way to prevent that from happening.
Second, as common as oppression may be, it is not natural for people to endure it quietly. When governments deny their people dignity, people tend to resist. And the resulting conflict between citizens and their governments, between two competing visions of how citizens should relate to their governments, has been a driving force in history, the root of everything from the Cold War to the multiple crises of a fraying authoritarian order in the Middle East.
Think about the greatest threats to our national security today. A return to territorial aggression in Europe -- by an authoritarian ruler in Moscow determined to erase a democratic rising in Ukraine, with no need to answer to a free press or parliament at home. The first use of weapons of mass destruction in a quarter century--by a dictator in Syria trying to obliterate opposition to his rule, and creating an pathway for extremists alongside a pile of corpses.
And think about some of our biggest strategic opportunities. The political opening in Burma, which we championed for decades even when short term geopolitics argued otherwise, may give us a responsible new partner in Asia. The empowerment of women and civil society in Afghanistan has created a bulwark against the Taliban and al Qaeda. A democratic transition in Tunisia that is making its government a stronger and better ally in the fight against terrorism.
And let’s face it, whether or not we want to care about the freedom of others, we are expected to. I’ve never been to a refugee camp or bombed out city or political prisoner’s home where people told me: “Why isn’t Brazil helping us,” or “We’re angry at Russia and China.” Because of who we are, how we see ourselves, and the power we project, it’s always us people look to. You can see that as a burden. I see it as our greatest strength, a quality that distinguishes us from every global power that has come and gone in history. It’s also an opportunity. For when we can meet such expectations, we win true friends, allies of an enduring, rather than transactional or transitional kind. If that’s not a core national interest, I don’t know what is.
But what about the other argument – that even when there is urgency help people in need, we no longer have agency. To say “we can’t do it” is more pernicious, more demoralizing, than to say “it’s not in our interest, or our business, to try.”
Here, a degree of realism is important. We cannot force upon divided societies from without solutions that can come only from within; and if we extend ourselves beyond our capacity to do good, it’s fair to argue that we risk doing harm. And while those are easy things to say, the reality is that people of good faith can disagree passionately about where to draw the line—and we as a nation have gotten it wrong, in both directions.
But consider a basic law of market economics -- that when there is huge demand for something, that something must have value. Would there be a demand for American leadership in every corner of the world if American leadership made no difference? In my first month in this job, I’ve had in my office a leader of Burma’s Kachin ethnic minority, a dissident from Vietnam, an LGBT activist from Uganda, an oppositionist from Russia. Were they all wrong to think that America has at least some capacity to aid their struggles? I’ve also met with officials from governments persecuting such people, all urging the United States not to get involved in these issues. So one side asks for help, the other says, don’t think of trying. In fact, both are saying the same thing: America matters.
And objectively they are right. Our relative military and economic might is, by all measures, as great or greater than at any point in the past. We are approaching energy independence. We are the hub of global communications and financial flows. As we’re seeing in Ukraine, the magnetic appeal of our values outweighs the repulsive weight of military aggression and economic blackmail. Most of all, we are still a legitimizing force for governments seeking respect in the world.
It is true, as we say in State Department, that our influence is limited. But our influence has never been and cannot be unlimited. It is our job to figure out how to use the influence we have to achieve the goals we set.
It is also true that in the trouble spots that keep us awake at night, there are no good options. But if there were good options, we would have taken them long ago; we’re paid to use our judgment, and choose as well as we can, recognizing that not to choose is also a choice. Being realists, we should recognize that in foreign policy, like baseball, succeeding 30 percent of the time will get you to the hall of fame. Our job is to make the world better than it would be if we didn’t try. We have the authority now, we have the strength, and we ought to have the confidence to focus more on the moral clarity side of the equation.
A couple of months ago, I got an email out of the blue from my daughter. It read, in all capital letters, “DADDY I’M READING ABOUT HOW AMERICA IGNORED THE GENOCIDE IT’S SO F’D UP I’M SO UPSET.” Apparently, she’d just read something Samantha Power wrote about Rwanda. A few minutes later, she wrote again, quoting a passage about an interagency meeting that rejected action, and then asked: “What were you doing at this time; I’m so curious.”
So I tried to answer her question. I remembered clearly that 20 years ago during the genocide, when I was a speechwriter for the Secretary of State, we did not write the word “Rwanda” into a single public statement by the Secretary of State. So what were we spending most of our time on? It turns out that it was a speech on America’s economic relationship with one of our main trading partners. This was an important issue. Many jobs in America depended on it. But I am certain that no one working at the State Department at that time has been asked by their children or grandchildren: “Where were you when we were negotiating that deal on procurement and regulatory reform.”
So what will our kids and grandkids ask of us 20 years from now? And what will we be able to say in response? I ask you to pause and reflect on that for a moment. If you agree with what I have said here today, and fight with all your heart for human rights and dignity around the world, I imagine our answer will still disappoint them. That’s the way the world is. But at least we will have an answer. And we’ll have done right by America as well.