The following op-ed appeared in The National Interest on January 3, 2012
Since Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Human Rights Day speech in Geneva last month, some have publicly wondered—and I imagine a great many more have privately done so—about why an American secretary of state would give a speech about protecting the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people abroad. Some wonder, in a time of economic hardship at home and grave global challenges, if it makes sense for the secretary to concentrate on the hardships experienced by a particular minority group. Others wonder whether it is appropriate for Clinton to talk about things like freedom, dignity and equality for LGBT people abroad when many conversations continue here in the United States about how to best requite those promises at home.
As many presidents and secretaries of state have pointed out, America stands to benefit from a world that respects and protects human rights. The only lasting peace will be one that rests, as President Obama has said, on recognition of the inherent dignity of every person. So it is in our long-term strategic interest to encourage a world where human rights are universally respected. Calling out the violations against any group—whether a religious minority, women or LGBT people—reminds us of the indivisibility of human rights and of, as Clinton said in Geneva, the work left to be done to make human rights a human reality. The good news is a speech about human rights—whatever its particular focus—doesn’t cost much and doesn’t remove opportunities to pursue parallel objectives. For example, Secretary Clinton has ramped up efforts to use diplomacy to foster prosperity—see her recent economic statecraft speech here—and has focused attention on the challenges of maintaining stability as we draw down from Afghanistan and Iraq. We can walk and chew gum at the same time.
In addition, we can talk about human rights protections for LGBT people everywhere while conversations about the rights of LGBT people continue here at home and while we’re still making progress on efforts to combat hate crimes and violence. Clinton acknowledged that our own journey continues, and as it does we can talk about the road we’ve traveled. Indeed, all over the world, those who don’t see a difference in kind can recognize a difference of degree between questions about employment nondiscrimination and questions about whether or not someone should be thrown in prison or executed because he or she is LGBT. We can say that people shouldn’t be killed or imprisoned for who they are or whom they love while other conversations continue.
But these initial answers, though they may assuage the thoughts of some about whether Clinton’s speech was advisable, may not be enough to answer questions about why her speech was important—and why it advanced U.S. interests.
In his first inaugural address, Ronald Reagan declared: “Above all, we must realize that no arsenal, or no weapon in the arsenals of the world, is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women. It is a weapon our adversaries in today’s world do not have.” What was true in his time remains true today, and Hillary Clinton’s speech at the UN in Geneva was an example of the United States’ tradition of moral courage. She put America on the side of those around the world who wish to claim their dignity, and she framed her message in timeless universal principles about the birthright of every person and the duty of every government to protect and respect human rights.
Moral leadership is a defining feature of American influence and power in the world. Of course, material wealth and military force matter. But our military and economic might are amplified by the fact that they are ours. It has become commonplace to talk ominously of the rise of other countries and the challenge they pose to U.S. leadership. But the commitment to universal principles that our country maintains—imperfectly but sincerely—cannot be bought with excess reserves; it cannot be imported; it cannot be forged from steel or built in a laboratory. Our moral leadership is part of our comparative advantage. Even adversaries clamor for our acceptance and are wounded when we call out their failings. And when we publicly recognize the claims of those who have been wronged, or when we bless the emergence of a new government in a place like Kosovo or South Sudan, we confer a legitimacy and status that money can’t buy and guns can’t establish.
We derive influence from our principled adherence to and advocacy for universal values. But moral courage requires not only our judgment but also our leadership. The second person to speak out against an injustice is no less right than the first, but the first bears the mark of courage for having broken the silence that others had not. America’s global leadership isn’t just supported by our being “on the right side of history” or following the moral arc of the universe. It comes from our willingness to make history and to bend its course toward justice. Clinton’s speech was an example of this—of not waiting until the debates are over to side with principle, but rather respectfully and clearly leading the way by lending the voice of the United States once again to the cause of justice and compassion.
Since the pilgrim (and future governor) John Winthrop first conjured the image of America as a “city upon a hill,” a landmark by which others could set their course and an example to which they might aspire, American leaders have invoked the image. It is one to which we should continuously aspire as we strive to create a more perfect union. We keep the lantern of leadership lit by living up to the principles on which our nation was founded and which have become foundational to international human-rights law. We keep it lit by championing the cause of the vulnerable and oppressed for whom the promise of dignity has yet to be realized. We keep it lit by demonstrating moral courage, by being willing to say and work for what is right and to be at the vanguard of the ongoing struggle to make human rights a human reality.
Twenty-five years ago last month, President Reagan celebrated Human Rights Day, remarking:
“The violation of human rights, whether in Kampuchea or Paraguay, Afghanistan or North Korea, whether it be the murder of Baha’is in Iran or the repression of ethnic Turks in Bulgaria, is the rightful cause of all free peoples. . . . Today that’s our job, our duty. America must continue to be a beacon of hope, sending this message to the oppressed of all nations. Those who suffer for freedom are not alone. We think of them, and we are with them. And that’s what Human Rights Day is all about.”
For those in the hall in Geneva and the hundreds of thousands more around the world who watched the speech online or read about it, Secretary Clinton renewed our commitment to human rights and offered a beacon of hope.