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"The Rights Stuff" -- Op-Ed in the "International Herald Tribune"

International Herald Tribune

By Jeffrey Gedmin

PRAGUE -- Washington is in the throes of an increasingly self-indulgent debate about whether the promotion of human rights and democracy should play a central role in U.S. foreign policy. In a number of areas in the world, authoritarian leaders are gaining self-confidence; this is no time for us to lose ours.

Russia and Iran ought to top the list of our concerns. In each case, the United States is apt to be tempted by realist "grand bargains" in which we would in effect trade our commitment to democracy and human rights for security.

The proposition may be seductive at first glance. For one thing, we want Russia's help to persuade the mullahs to forgo nuclear weapons. For another, Moscow has reasserted itself in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Should we fail to play nice with the Kremlin, the result may be diminished Western access to gas and oil as well as to transit routes to supply our forces in Afghanistan. At least so goes the argument.

The stakes in the case of Iran's nuclear program are at least equally high. If the mullahs get the bomb, a destabilizing arms race in the Middle East will likely ensue. Various terror groups will be emboldened, feeling safe to operate under the protection of Tehran's nuclear umbrella. Who wants to be distracted by secondary issues such as imprisoned journalists or womens' rights?

There are other reasons for our hesitancy to push democracy and human rights. The financial crisis, the debate over Guantánamo, and now the corruption scandal in Britain, have some asking: Who are we to export liberal values when our own house is not in order?

This misses the point. Obviously, we in the West are no more virtuous than anybody in any other country. But our system of democracy is. It's things like independent courts, free media and the verdict of the ballot box that help to sort our deficiencies. What's more, history shows that opportunistic deals with dictators not only betray our values; they seldom deliver over time on those very interests we claim to be pursuing.

What to do? First, let's not tire of affirming that individual liberty is a universal value and that democracy is the best way to protect freedom and human rights. The Russians and Iranians will accuse us of meddling in their internal affairs. We need to insist, though, that our support for free media and independent NGOs and our respect for human rights be an essential part of our dialogue with their countries.

Some in the West will claim that certain cultures are not suited to democratic ways. Don't believe it. We heard about Germany's authoritarian gene after World War II and the notion that Germans can't be democrats. Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world, helps to dispel the myth that Islam and democracy are intrinsically incompatible.

Of course, culture matters. And liberal democracy would take time in either country. But why would the Kremlin or the mullahs worry so much about suppressing civil society and silencing independent media if they believed their respective peoples naturally enjoy authoritarian rule?

Second, don't fall for foolish, dead-end debates. One such debate is over engagement v. isolation. Let's engage Russia and Iran. It's already happening anyway. But engagement cannot be merely a cover for big business or an excuse to appease. An acquaintance in Berlin told me last summer that Germans felt for plucky Georgia, but no one was going to risk a cold winter just because Russia had invaded. This sort of thinking is becoming commonplace in many circles. It is not exactly the West at its best.

In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher had British diplomats visit the grave of a slain Polish priest when they arrived in Warsaw. Father Jerzy Popieluszko, an eloquent voice for freedom in communist Poland, had been abducted and killed by the secret police. Other Western governments followed the British lead. Such gestures can be powerful. This is something President Obama might consider when he visits Moscow this summer.

Times change. Some things don't. It would be folly to give up our most cherished principles.

Jeffrey Gedmin is president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.