One Case at a Time
How the United States can reawaken liberal values in foreign policy with a focus on political prisoners
It’s been a disastrous two decades for anyone who believes that liberal values ought to figure into America’s foreign policy. Though President George W. Bush justified the 2003 invasion of Iraq primarily on security grounds – in particular, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s supposed possession of chemical and biological weapons – the war soon became intimately associated with Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” and more general American efforts to promote democracy in the Middle East. Failed nation-building and counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan also served to discredit notions of overseas democracy promotion in the eyes of many Americans. What’s more, democracy itself declined around the world over the past decade and a half according to measures compiled by Freedom House.
President Barack Obama did little to challenge these perceptions. In fact, he did much to strengthen them – his administration abused the “responsibility to protect” doctrine to overthrow the loathsome Qaddafi regime in Libya but then failed to pay adequate attention to the country’s enormous resulting challenges. Nor did it ever manage to find a satisfactory response to Syria’s civil war, attempting to hold the conflict at arm’s length even as the Assad regime murdered some 1,300 civilians with sarin nerve agent before intervening against the Islamic State in late 2014. Moreover, the Obama administration appeared willing to hold its tongue about human rights in Iran in order to seal the 2015 nuclear deal with the regime in Tehran.
Then there’s President Trump, who never met an autocrat he didn’t admire – or an old friend he wasn’t willing to throw under the bus. Making matters worse, Trump’s attempt to retain power after his loss at the polls – itself equally farce and peril – left many Americans wondering just how the United States could make liberal values a part of its foreign policy when it failed to promote them at home. Nor were progressives much better, blaming America’s “endless wars” on efforts to support liberal principles overseas and advocating a left-wing version of realism that would make Henry Kissinger look like a starry-eyed idealist.
But liberal patriots and the broader American center-left can’t simply evade questions about values when it comes to foreign policy. For starters, if the United States doesn’t stand up for liberal principles in the world it’s not at all clear that anyone else will. We’ve just emerged from a natural experiment in which the United States failed to even rhetorically gesture toward these values, and the results have not been encouraging to say the least. No other nation that espouses liberal values can match America’s sheer geopolitical weight – its economic strength and military might – while others like China and Russia use their own power to make the world safe for autocracy.
It’s better that the United States at least tries to use its influence and make a positive difference in the world. That requires us to understand our limitations as well as our strengths, to determine where we have the most realistic chances for success and where we should avoid biting off more than we can chew. After the past thirty years or so, it’s clear that we don’t have a good idea how to successfully promote democracy and human rights overseas. Technocratic political party-building programs, international human rights commissions, and support for competitive elections have not delivered on their promises. Indeed, countries like Poland and Hungary that would have been considered success stories a decade and a half ago have slidden into illiberal government.
In other words, the United States needs to scale back grandiose ambitions of democracy and human rights promotion that we’ve pursued since the end of the Cold War. Instead, America should work toward smaller, more concrete goals that stand a chance of success – like the release of political prisoners around the world. It’s an area where the United States can both make a tangible difference and remain consistent with both friends and adversaries. This focus on political prisoners should not be indiscriminate, however. The United States should emphasize two groups of individuals held for political purposes: dual-nationals, particularly Americans, and those imprisoned over their support for liberal values like freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and women’s rights.
China and Russia present the two most obvious and biggest targets for a focus on political prisoners. Most egregiously, Beijing has locked up, tortured, and sexually abused as many as a million Uyghers in a “sprawling network” of concentration camps – an ongoing crime against humanity that’s brought condemnation from both sides of the political aisle in Washington, including newly-confirmed Secretary of State Antony Blinken. That’s in addition to the nearly 1,600 other political and religious prisoners identified by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China’s most recent report. For its part, Russia holds more than five dozen political prisoners, including recently detained opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
This approach would also work in the Middle East: Saudi Arabia and Iran, for instance both hold American dual-nationals – Riyadh over support for women’s rights and Tehran as part of a broader foreign policy of hostage-taking – and both jail women’s rightsactivists under appalling conditions. Other countries like Egyptand Syria would also likely fall under scrutiny, as would militias like the Houthis that control wide swathes of territory in the region. Abstract lectures about values have failed to make much progress on liberal values with either partners or adversaries in the Middle East, but concrete demands to release political prisoners can put those values in action – and give autocratic governments a tangible way to reduce American pressure.
Right now, the United States is in no position to promote liberal values in the ways it’s attempted to do so over the past thirty years. To be sure, Americans have more than enough work to do on this front at home. But that doesn’t mean giving up on values in foreign policy – it means setting our sights on goals that we can reasonably accomplish and seeking small, concrete victories instead of sweeping political and social transformations.
America does take sides in international politics, and we hope to keep the embers of liberalism burning even in this inauspicious era. An emphasis on the release of political prisoners can help do just that.