The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion American diplomacy must again ground itself in the nation’s founding principles

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a news conference at the State Department on Wednesday. (Pool/Reuters)
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Michael R. Pompeo is U.S. secretary of state.

To secure freedom at home and abroad, Americans must rightly understand the nation’s founding principles. That’s why, last year, I convened the State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights. I asked its members not to make policy, but to elaborate the principles through which we can ground America’s commitment to championing human rights in our enduring dedication to unalienable rights and our tradition of constitutional self-government.

After almost a year of work, the commission releases its report to the public Thursday at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. Some say the report’s timing couldn’t be worse. I say the timing couldn’t be better.

Never before have America’s founding principles been under such relentless assault. For decades, our institutions of higher education have sought to debunk or disown them. Last summer, the New York Times launched the 1619 Project, which contends that the essence of America is entwined with slavery and racism. In recent weeks, justified outrage at the actions of a rogue Minneapolis policeman has given way to outrageous efforts to erase American history by tearing down statues of our nation’s founders.

Never has knowledge of our founding principles been more urgent. As President Trump has recognized, we face many mighty challenges from abroad. Ruled with an iron fist by the Chinese Communist Party, for instance, China seeks to remake the world in its autocratic image and subordinate other nations to its hegemonic ambitions. We can’t confront Beijing or other gross human rights violators throughout the world without understanding the roots of our foreign policy, though the lens of our Founders’ intent.

Just when unity of purpose is called for, confusion sweeps the land about the convictions that undergird our great experiment in ordered liberty. Some of our best-educated and most highly credentialed citizens have lost sight of the fundamental difference between autocracies, which subordinate the individual to the will of a dictator, and liberal democracies, whose overriding purpose — notwithstanding their inevitable shortcomings and constant need for vigilance and reform — is to enable individuals, families and communities to flourish.

Freedom has always been at the center of the American political order. The Declaration of Independence proclaims that every human being is endowed with certain unalienable rights, such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that governments are instituted to secure these rights; and that all legitimate power springs from the consent of the governed. The Constitution structures our fundamental political institutions to provide the energy and flexibility to secure rights while circumscribing the exercise of political power to prevent government from violating rights. And the American political tradition records the continuing struggle to honor the nation’s founding promise.

Freedom has always been at the center of American diplomacy. In the republic’s early years, Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson urged the nation to protect the American people’s freedom by avoiding, in Jefferson’s words, “entangling alliances.” In 1823, President James Monroe declared that to safeguard liberty and individual rights at home, the nation must protect the Western Hemisphere from the unfree forms of government that then characterized Europe.

Two years earlier, his secretary of state, John Quincy Adams, asserted in a July 4 address that the United States speaks “the language of equal liberty, of equal justice, and of equal rights. . . . But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator of her own.”

The 19th and 20th centuries brought great changes. Two world wars and successive revolutions in transportation and communications shrank the globe, leaving nations vastly more interconnected and interdependent. The United States was compelled to revise its diplomacy, the better to honor its founding principles. In 1948, the U.N. General Assembly, with the United States taking a leading role, passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Although it inspired human rights treaties to which the United States is signatory, the UDHR is not itself binding law. Rather, it establishes “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.”

Since 1948, presidents of both parties have insisted that the United States must champion human rights abroad. But hard questions abound: What is the connection between the nation’s constitutional system and its international obligations? How do we apply old rights to new circumstances and assess the validity of new rights claims? How do we balance the commitment to champion human rights with diplomacy’s complex and multifarious demands?

By recovering our nation’s founding principles — and elaborating them in that spirit of toleration and civility on which constitutional government depends — the State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights enables the nation to better answer these always-pressing questions and thereby makes an important contribution to securing freedom. I encourage everyone to read its fine work.

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