Friday, December 10, 2010

Leadership alert: Obama's salute to Liu Xiaobo

To paraphrase (and mangle) Michelle Obama, every now and then I'm still proud of my country.  As in, this morning a little before 8:00, with a glance at the lede to this Statement by President Barack Obama:

One year ago, I was humbled to receive the Nobel Peace Prize - an award that speaks to our highest aspirations, and that has been claimed by giants of history and courageous advocates who have sacrificed for freedom and justice. Mr. Liu Xiaobo is far more deserving of this award than I was.

What a two-stroke. The Chinese authorities call Liu Xiaobo a criminal. Obama raises his stature above that of the President of the United States.

The rest of the statement shows an equally agile, subtle, forceful approach to criticizing the Chinese government in public:

All of us have a responsibility to build a just peace that recognizes the inherent rights and dignity of human beings - a truth upheld within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In our own lives, our own countries, and in the world, the pursuit of a just peace remains incomplete, even as we strive for progress. This past year saw the release of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, even as the Burmese people continue to be denied the democracy that they deserve. Nobel Laureate Jose Ramos Horta has continued his tireless work to build a free and prosperous East Timor, having made the transition from dissident to President. And this past year saw the retirement of Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu, whose own career demonstrates the universal power of freedom and justice to overcome extraordinary obstacles.

The rights of human beings are universal - they do not belong to one nation, region or faith. America respects the unique culture and traditions of different countries. We respect China's extraordinary accomplishment in lifting millions out of poverty, and believe that human rights include the dignity that comes with freedom from want. But Mr. Liu reminds us that human dignity also depends upon the advance of democracy, open society, and the rule of law. The values he espouses are universal, his struggle is peaceful, and he should be released as soon as possible. I regret that Mr. Liu and his wife were denied the opportunity to attend the ceremony that Michelle and I attended last year. Today, on what is also International Human Rights Day, we should redouble our efforts to advance universal values for all human beings.
It is a constant theme in Obama's writing and thinking that if you are going to assert your personal values on matters of public policy, you have to appeal to values that you can plausibly claim to be universal. Here's how he put it in The Audacity of Hope (p. 219).
What our deliberative, pluralistic democracy does demand is that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals must be subject to argument and amenable to reason.
On the international stage, the same principle holds for our secular scriptures, the Declaration and Constitution, and their descendant, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, invoked here on International Human Rights Day.

Obama asserts those universal rights not in the name of the United States per se, but in the name of Suu Kyi and Horta and Tutu. And he couches the criticism of Chinese authorities in praise -- nice job on the "freedom from want" front, now what about that democracy, open society, and the rule of law?

I am reminded too of Obama's statement to Chinese students last year that he is made a stronger leader by being subject to fierce criticism.  Here he raises his moral authority by placing it below that of the Chinese man he honors.  I imagine that that will make an impression on those to whom this statement gets through.


  1. Before we get all lathered up here, we had better make the odious comparison between China and the U.S. as to “freedom of speech” and such efforts to obtain and keep the rights of citizens vis a vis the persecution of overpowering governments. There Liu Xiaobo, and there’s Julian Assange and Bradley Manning.

  2. Sorry, but that's a false equivalence. There's a huge difference between persecuting a critic of the government and advocate for free speech and prosecuting a soldier who leaks classified documents. For Assange, the picture is more ambiguous, since he didn't steal the documents and has no obligation to the U.S. government, and prosecuting those who publish leaked documents is a dangerous precedent. But no government can simply brush off the massive indiscriminate release of documents chronicling its inner workings. There's a world of difference between trying to find a way o sop such massive disclosure and simply quashing dissent.