The Diplomatic Front of the War on Terrorism: Can the Promotion of Democracy and Human Rights Tip the Scales?

Report Homeland Security

The Diplomatic Front of the War on Terrorism: Can the Promotion of Democracy and Human Rights Tip the Scales?

December 21, 2001 11 min read
The Paula J. Dobriansky
Policy Analyst

I am delighted to return to the Heritage Foundation. Heritage stimulates and launches needed debates on key public policy issues and provides vital input to the policy-making processes. I welcome an opportunity today to share this Administration's thinking on democracy and human rights, both as inherently worthwhile endeavors and as a key component of our war against terrorism. I will also briefly comment on the humanitarian and human rights aspects of the evolving situation in Afghanistan.

Let me begin by stating that the 20th and 21st centuries have witnessed a large share of terrorist attacks and incidences. However, the tragic events of September 11 were unique in several important respects. The number of civilian victims was large--over 3,600. Never before have so many people been killed in a terrorist attack. Moreover, this attack was cast by its perpetrators--the al-Qaeda organization, with Osama bin Laden at the helm--as part of a broad effort to destroy the United States and everything we stand for. In the last several weeks, bin Laden himself has delivered several chilling new threats, claiming to possess weapons of mass destruction and articulating his desire to use these weapons against the United States. Never before in human history have terrorists posed as stark a challenge to the forces of order and civilization.

This point bears emphasizing. Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network did not just launch a despicable attack on the American people. At a more fundamental level, they assaulted freedom and modernity throughout the world, challenging the ability of both Western countries and the Islamic world to live in peace and prosperity. As Secretary of State Colin Powell aptly stated, "[this attack] wasn't an assault on America. It was an assault on civilization, it was an assault on democracy, it was an assault on the right of innocent people to live their lives."


Considering the magnitude of the challenge and the stakes involved, it is not surprising that the fight against terrorism has become the number one priority of this Administration and of our key allies in the global anti-terrorist coalition. The U.S. government continues to encourage and work with governments that share our fundamental commitment to the protection of democracy against the scourge of terrorism. Our overall goal is not just fighting against terrorism; it is fighting for civilization and democracy. At the most fundamental level, our fight is a battle to preserve the very strictures of civilization that protect individual liberty and human rights, including democracy and religious freedom.

Stripping away the veneer of legitimacy, religious and cultural respectability from today's terrorists and portraying them for what they are--those who trample the fundamental tenets of Islam and all religions and who have nothing constructive to offer to the world--is an essential task. The Administration, together with some of our coalition friends, has launched an aggressive public diplomacy effort, designed to accomplish these goals. We are also very pleased to see that not only is this a government effort, but that the press and private organizations like Heritage have also recognized and risen to meet this challenge. Ideas do matter. Those of the Taliban are self-evidently more that just wrong--they are evil. But it is still up to us to continue to demonstrate why our ideas of democracy, tolerance and respect for human rights, civil liberties and religious freedom are right.


The advancement of human rights and democracy is important in its own right. At the same time, these efforts are the bedrock of our war on terrorism. The violation of human rights by repressive regimes provides fertile ground for popular discontent. In turn, this discontent is cynically exploited by terrorist organizations and their supporters. By contrast, a stable government that responds to the legitimate desires of its people and respects their rights, shares power, respects diversity, and seeks to unleash the creative potential of all elements of society is a powerful antidote to extremism.

I am pleased to tell you that this Administration's commitment to human rights, democracy, and religious freedom is unshakeable. The President and other senior officials have emphasized these core principles repeatedly in the aftermath of September 11. The President's National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice, at a recent Forum on the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, reiterated our commitment to promoting democracy, noting "democratization and stability are the underpinning for a world free of terrorism."

Indeed, the promotion of democracy and human rights has been at the root of American diplomacy. For decades, under Republican and Democrat Administrations, the United States, the world's oldest democracy, has been the leader in advancing human rights and freedom around the world. As one of the original signers and proponents of the Helsinki Accords on Human Rights in 1975, the U.S. has been looked to by other countries for moral guidance, and, when needed, action on human rights and freedom issues. Whether supporting dissidents in the former Soviet Union or Burma, the Solidarity Movement in Poland, or pushing for the end to abuses by dictators like Slobodan Milosevic or more recently the Taliban regime, the United States has constantly spoken out in defense, and acted on behalf, of the universal right of all human beings to be free from government oppression and unfair persecution.

America's enormous cultural, ideological, spiritual, and scientific appeal and accomplishments offer viable and successful approaches to global problems and examples of what can be achieved to those around the world who are struggling with issues of democracy stability and economic growth. The "soft power" of the United States, a term coined by Harvard University professor Joseph Nye, is a complement to the "hard power"--military, economic and diplomatic--that remains a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy. Demonstrating by example is often the best way for the United States to achieve its goals.

Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall, numerous repressive regimes continue to violate the rights of their citizens. Thus, the need for us to maintain a focus on human rights and individuals' freedom has not abated. The State Department does this not only in its bilateral and multilateral meetings, but also through its Annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, as well as its recently released report on International Religious Freedom. These reports are designed to shed light on a country's performance on human rights and religious freedom in order to engage other nations in dialogue and to encourage them to take steps that will allow the people living in those states to experience the liberties we enjoy in the United States.

In describing our human rights policy, I want to stress one key point. While we are committed to resolving individual human rights cases and work hard to advance particular human rights causes, our fundamental goal is to effect long-term, sustainable democratization around the world. While some democratic reversals have been known to occur, by and large, once a society reaches a certain level of democratic maturity, it usually continues indefinitely on a democratic path.

While some democracies are far from perfect, they offer the best guarantee against internal abuses by governments or ethnic or religious groups. Duly elected leaders who remain accountable to their people through the ballot box in free, fair, and transparent elections and who consistently face serious and credible opposition, usually prove to be the most accountable and responsible.

Elections, of course, matter little if they produce leaders who forget their accountability to their constituents and abuse their powers. Accordingly, elections must take place within the proper institutional context--a proper checks-and-balances system, featuring a free and independent media, and independent judicial and legislative branches of government. Not just our American experience, but the history of the world demonstrates the necessity for a limited government, operating with a system of checks-and-balances, underpinned by a rule of law and civil society.

To be sure, each country needs to pursue the path of development best suited to its population, history, and culture. Yet to argue that, in certain countries, the people are not yet ready for democracy is to make excuses for maintaining a repressive status quo and for stifling the rights of the people to choose their own leaders. The United States will never surrender its leadership role, in pushing for the spread of democracy, human rights, and freedom around the world.

Our foreign policy must be flexible enough to respect other countries' traditions and values, while simultaneously advancing principles of democracy and human rights that have become universally recognized. Through vigorous public diplomacy, however, we should never shy away from extolling the virtues of our society, the diversity of our people, and the power of our example. This, by the way, explains why, while we are actively cooperating with dozens of countries which have joined the anti-terrorist coalition, even the ones with a serious democracy deficit, we have not shied away from speaking out forcefully in defense of human rights. This applies not only to countries in transition, as is the case with the Central Asian members of the coalition, but also to our traditional friends in the Middle East. A careful, measured but nevertheless determined and purposeful path of democratization offers the best avenue for stability, prosperity and reconciliation around the world and the best long-term insurance against forces of terror and extremism.

Democratic reforms, political pluralism and the promotion of women's rights can be carried out with due sensitivity to cultural and religious values and in ways that marginalize, rather than empower, extremist forces and movements. Those who argue that this is not realistic in the Muslim world have not been listening to Muslim politicians, civil society leaders, academics, and religious authorities who are increasingly arguing that it is not only possible, indeed it is essential. Listen more closely to what is being said. And watch the new young generation in the Muslim world who seem to understand that the best way to preserve and respect traditional core values of Islam is to strengthen and enhance their fundamental appeal through a modern, inclusive, and participatory society.

In addition to bringing forth our own experiences and expertise, both at the governmental and NGO level, it is imperative to engage local civil society in the promotion of democracy and human rights. This, in fact, was the key advice of a group of academicians and diplomats from various Muslim countries with whom I have met recently. Likewise, I have greatly benefited from a recent discussion with key women opinion leaders, who urged me to work both to restore the rights of Afghan women, as well as to promote, as a part of our struggle against forces of extremism, greater political and economic participation by women in all countries. Women have proven to be among the key figures in promoting a rich and activist civil society. And without this kind of demand-driven energy, no amount of good intentions will result in the kind of democratic reform we are trying to promote. We took this advice very much to heart. Indeed, we intend to continue seeking advice from the key regional interlocutors on how best to promote democracy and human rights.

To achieve these goals it is important to undertake vigorous public diplomacy efforts. These efforts should be designed to enhance both our understanding of cultures and traditions in Muslim countries and improve their understanding of American foreign policy. To accomplish these goals, we will draw upon the entire arsenal of public diplomacy tools including radio, television broadcasts, roundtables and conferences, exchange programs as well as official dialogue.


What we are doing in Afghanistan today has first and foremost to do with the security of the United States. We should not lose sight of that. But humanitarianism and compassion also are key driving forces behind our policy. Where the international community can avert or arrest humanitarian crises, it, of course, has an obligation to do so. But this requires an international--not solely an American--response. The overriding goal of U.S. policy is to prevent these kinds of crises, to avert them before ever reaching the point of being a humanitarian disaster. Where we fall short of that goal, of preventing crises overseas, we must be ready to respond forcefully, with all of the available tools of statecraft. Compassion is an integral component of President Bush's foreign policy, and it motivates America, even in these trying times, to continue to lead the international effort to provide humanitarian relief to those most vulnerable. As the President has asserted, "We have no compassion for terrorists, or for any state that sponsors them. But, we do have great compassion for the millions around the world who are victims of hate and oppression--including those in Afghanistan. We are friends of the Afghan people. We have an opportunity to make sure the world is a better place for generations to come."

Our assistance to the people of Afghanistan is not a new, post-September 11 development. Over the past two decades, the United States has consistently been the largest donor of humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people, providing roughly two-thirds of the total aid to Afghanistan for all international donors. The United States currently provides 80 percent of all food contributions to the World Food Program that benefit the Afghan people.

The people of Afghanistan have suffered enormously for more than two decades, starting with the Soviet invasion 22 years ago, followed by continued civil war, then five years of repressive Taliban regime and the willingness of the Taliban to harbor Osama bin Laden and his network of terrorists. Drought on top of all of that has meant that more than half the Afghan population is malnourished and millions are at risk of starvation. More than three million Afghans have fled their homes, escaped to neighboring states, and have become refugees. All this before the events of September 11.

On October 4, the President announced an additional $320 million in aid, which included $25 million in immediate assistance for those Afghans who have escaped the Taliban into the neighboring countries in South and Central Asia. Other countries are stepping up to the plate as well, pledging more than $400 million to bolster our efforts. Just last week, we hosted a conference at the State Department on the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Upcoming meetings will focus on the continuing humanitarian crisis and the need to develop a post-Taliban government.

Humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people responds not only to the immediate crisis on the ground, but also lays the groundwork for Afghanistan's development in the months and years to
follow the current crisis. Stabilizing the situation in Afghanistan and facilitating a return to normal life will create the conditions under which longer-term development problems in that country can at last be addressed. That process will remove openings that extremist groups otherwise would exploit. Hence, humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan also serves as a vital tool in our overall fight against terrorism.

In the words of President Bush, "America will join the world in helping the people of Afghanistan rebuild their country. The United States will work with the U.N. to support a post-Taliban government that represents all of the Afghan people."


As the President has noted so eloquently, America has always understood that we can never rid the world of evil, unless we also do our part to fill the world with good.

The post-September 11 fight against terrorism, while drawing upon all of the traditional tools of American statecraft, has reinvigorated the moral and spiritual aspects of our foreign policy. The promotion of democracy and human rights causes lies at the heart of this Administration's foreign policy. What Thomas Jefferson said more than two centuries ago still rings true today: "The spirit of our citizens, rising with the strength and majesty which show the loveliness of freedom, will make this government in practice what it is in principle, a model for the protection of man in a state of freedom and order."

The Honorable Paula J. Dobriansky is Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs.


The Paula J. Dobriansky

Policy Analyst