Obama, human rights, democracy promotion

One of the interesting features of the current events in Egypt is that they have driven Barack Obama and his administration to a far more significant embrace of human rights language than ever before. Recall that during the last outburst of Middle Eastern protest, in Iran in the summer of 2009, Obama — having suggested he had learned the lessons of neoconservative universalism — relied on religious language of “bearing witness” to what happened as repression abroad happened. We might stand idly by, he implied, as repression beckoned, but we should shed a tear and remember the victims. This time, he announced clearly that “universal rights” are at stake. And Obama is now warning that the repression can’t go too far.

It will be fascinating to watch this change develop, and how far Obama takes his newfound commitment to the language. It will also be significant to watch whether, alongside human rights, “democracy promotion” gets a new lease on life. Signs of this are already occurring, assignificant neoconservative commentators retrieve tarnished views, against worries about short-term stability, or even narrow concern about regional politics. At the same time, more liberal commentators insist that the freedom agenda means (always meant?) something slightly different than flawed neoconservative visions.

Lots depends, of course, on what happens in Egypt — not so much how far the US goes in supporting democratization, but what different versions of democracy (if any) end up being on the table. Stay tuned.

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About Samuel Moyn

Samuel Moyn is JHenry R. Luce Professor of Jurisprudence at Yale Law School and professor of history at Yale University. He has written several books in his fields of European intellectual history and human rights history, including The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Harvard, 2010), and edited or coedited a number of others. His most recent books are Christian Human Rights (Penn, 2015), based on Mellon Distinguished Lectures at the University of Pennsylvania in fall 2014, and Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World (Harvard, 2018).