In his interview with Vox, President Obama laid out a view of the United States' role in foreign affairs that is so minimalist that Matt Yglesias, who interviewed him, has referred to it as an "undoctrine." There’s a lot to like about that idea: inaction looks pretty great when compared to actions like, say, the Iraq war. But it's just a tactic — and US foreign policy requires a strategy.
Nowhere was that clearer than in Obama's response to a question about human rights. When asked whether he was concerned about the human-rights records of US allies like Egypt, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia, Obama hedged, saying that the US has to press for human-rights improvements while also pursuing other national-security objectives — to "do both things."
Well, sure. But that doesn't answer the real question of when it is worthwhile for the US to pursue improvements in human rights at the expense of other objectives. Are human-rights protections part of a strategic plan for improving the world and protecting American interests? Or are they just a sort of free gift with purchase of other policies, something nice to have but not an objective in and of themselves?
That approach is especially curious because Obama himself said that other countries' poor human-rights records are a source of instability and chaos in the world and a threat to US partnerships with its allies. Surely, then, there should be a more strategic way of integrating them into US policy than just trying to "do both things." But Obama implied that he had only a minor, reactive role to play and that the arc of history would take care of the problem in the long run. That's a curious — and concerning — view for the leader of the free world to take.
Obama says human rights are a strategic issue. So what's his strategy?
"Any realist worth their salt," Obama said during the interview, "would say that any society that consistently ignores human rights and the dignity of its citizens at some point is going to be unstable and not a great partner."
He later elaborated that the nature of the world is making autocracies increasingly unsustainable. "I am a firm believer that particularly in this modern internet age, the capacity of the old-style authoritarian government to sustain itself and to thrive just is going to continue to weaken. It's going to continue to crumble that model."
That's especially notable because stability is clearly a major concern for him. In the interview, he said that the biggest challenges the US is facing right now are how to deal with the violent disorder of failed states, civil war, terrorism, and sectarian violence. And in many cases, that disorder is preceded by exactly the dynamic Obama described: an autocratic government represses political dissent and violates human rights as it clings to power, but then eventually collapses, leaving behind a political vacuum that breeds violent chaos.
That's what happened in Libya, in Iraq (with an assist from the US on the "collapse" part), and in Syria. It may be happening in slow motion in Egypt, where the military government is struggling to control an Islamist insurgency in the Sinai peninsula. If that same dynamic could play out in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia or elsewhere, then US policy needs to take that risk into account and develop a strategy for limiting the threat it poses to US interests.
So under Obama's own reasoning, bad human rights protections make countries unstable, which is not just a moral problem but also a threat to US interests. That's a strategic consideration that deserves a strategic response. But if Obama has such a strategy, he was careful not to mention it in the interview.
In Obama's world, there are no hard tradeoffs on human rights
We can reasonably assume that, all things being equal, the president would like to see fewer atrocities in the world. Everyone thinks that human rights are neat and swell in the abstract, after all. But the real question for a leader is what happens when all things are not equal, which is the case most of the time. When should human rights take priority over other US concerns or objectives?
When Yglesias specifically asked the president about the long-term sustainability of US partnerships with countries that have bad human-rights records, such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt, Obama avoided answering the question. "Speaking out on these issues" is important for the US, he said, but there are "times where we've got to mute some of our criticism to get some stuff done." Later, when discussing how the "internet age" would "crumble" authoritarianism on its own, Obama seemed to reject the premise that he is facing a difficult choice at all.
There are obvious reasons for the US to partner with those nations. Bahrain is the home of a US naval fleet. Saudi Arabia is both an energy giant and a regional power. And Egypt, in addition to being Israel's neighbor, is the world's most populous Arab country and a longstanding US military partner in the region. But those governments' human rights records are also genuinely appalling.
If Obama truly believes that "any society that consistently ignores human rights and the dignity of its citizens at some point is going to be unstable and not a great partner," then those countries' abuses pose a threat to the long-term health of their partnerships with the United States and thus to the US's power in the world. It seems reasonable to expect that Obama could articulate his framework for addressing such a threat when questioned point-blank about that issue. But he didn't.
The arc of history won't solve this problem
Instead, Obama said that we shouldn't worry so much because the arc of history was bending towards justice:
The overall trajectory, the overall goal, is a world in which America continues to lead, that we're pushing in the direction of more security, more international norms and rules, more human rights, more free speech, less religious intolerance.
Obama's position appears to be that the US should not focus too much on individual countries and instead should work towards strengthening international institutions such as the UN or NATO, in the hope that they will gradually produce improvement for the world as a whole.
That can certainly help, but it's not a solution to the problem of violent disorder that Obama defined as "the biggest challenge we have right now." If human rights are an important factor in the stability of the nations the US partners with, then it won't do to just sit back and hope the UN takes care of the matter.
In other words, it can be true that the world overall is becoming less violent, that infant mortality is falling, and that poor farmers' lives are improving, but also still true that the risk of autocratic regimes collapsing into violent chaos poses a serious and ongoing security threat to the United States.
I hope that the arc of history does bend towards justice in the long run. But I also hope that America — and in particular, its president — will play an active role in bending that arc in the right direction. After all, Obama may have more power to do so than any other individual on earth. And yet, he appears not to be eager to take on the hard work of making human rights an active part of his foreign policy. And, just as worryingly, he seems unable to articulate a framework for making the difficult tradeoffs that would require. That is a concern not just for Americans, but also for the people around the world whose lives will be affected by what the US does or does not do.