Someone Has to Lead

Someone or some coalition must lead to make progress on global human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) required U.S. leadership in partnership with others or it would not have happened. Any further progress on freedom in the world requires U.S. leadership. The United States was flawed then, and it has internal challenges now, but that did not disqualify it from leading then and it does not disqualify Americans from leading now. The UDHR has ensured that human freedom has to be taken into account in international politics since 1948. Since then, the world has become a freer place, the UDHR provided the vision, and the United States has been an important supporting actor in enabling more freedom around the world.

The former first lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt, led the U.S. delegation and pushed the coalition of nations in the creation of the UDHR. Her efforts ensured that the draft was completed in less than two years and created common ground when the world was still split into Eastern and Western blocs. The UDHR was, and remains, an ambitious and groundbreaking document that transcended legal systems, social customs, international agreements, and political ideologies. It serves as a declaration of universal principles and a standard for human rights that all nations agree on.

Yet simultaneous with this extraordinary feat, the United States itself was still wrestling with racism that was enshrined in law. Racial discrimination limited opportunities for African Americans, segregating them in both education and in the military. Even prestigious institutions like Harvard University had issues—of the 1,000 students in the class of 1952, only four were African American and there were implicit restrictions on Jewish people exercised as informal quotas. There was overt discrimination against Catholics, especially those of Irish, Polish, and Italian descent. As of 1948, only seven members of the House and one in the Senate were women and only 28 percent of the total civil labor force was female. The United States, like many other countries at the time, was far from perfect.

Given all the shortcomings of the United States at the time, many might ask the question: why did the United States step forward to lead the charge for human rights?

In 1948, eight countries abstained from supporting the UDHR outright, including Russia (then the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic), its then “puppet states” Belarus (Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic), and Ukraine (Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic). Sadly, Russia continues a policy of trying to have puppet states in Belarus and Ukraine. Saudi Arabia also abstained while Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq voted for the UDHR. Canada's hesitation in endorsing a draft of the UDHR, due to the disagreement on the norms of freedom of religion and association, demonstrates that even the closest U.S. allies had reservations. There were 48 countries that supported the UDHR and zero voted against it.

Critics increasingly challenge the United States' leadership in advocating for democracy and human rights, citing events like January 6 or recent disagreements over electoral results in 2016 or 2020. Certainly, the United States is freer place and more just place than in 1948. Certainly, its democracy is more inclusive. The United States today has approximately 100,000 elected government officials, from school councils to the president represent a functioning democracy. The Civil Rights Act and the Executive Order 9981 banned segregation and discrimination based on race, religion, or creed in the army. Women today hold more advanced degrees than men, and women’s employment has continued to rise. Women’s participation rate in the labor force is now 56.8 percent the United States. There are 150 women and 60 African American U.S. House and Senate members today. Even with all the progress we still need to make, unemployment rates for people of color are at an all-time low, while wages continue to grow.

We still have work to do. If not the United States, the alternative is having these human rights issues stewarded by a coalition led by “someone else,” namely the Chinese Communist Party, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Ali Khamenei in Iran, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Miguel Díaz-Canel in Cuba, or Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela. According to Freedom House, the number of countries designated as “not free” has been the highest in 2021 ever since the start of a pattern of democratic decline in 2006. About 73 countries have a downgraded level of democracy, and autocratic regimes are undermining human rights around the globe. Russia is continuing its illegal invasion of Ukraine while ignoring international law and rules of sovereignty, pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong are met with brutal state violence, media censorship is rampant in Iran, Belarus is a tin-pot dictatorship, the Catholic Church is being formally repressed in Nicaragua, worldwide Christians (the religion most persecuted in the world) and other religions face persecution, and 20 years of women’s rights progress has been destroyed in Afghanistan. This stark reality serves as a contrast to the principles of equality, democracy, liberty, and the rules-based international system that the United States has long championed and paints a vivid picture of what an international system led by China and Russia would resemble. If not the United States, who will speak for freedom in China and Russia? Who will speak for the human rights in Iran? Who will speak for democracy in Venezuela and who will defend religious freedom in Nicaragua?

Enlarging human freedom in the world still requires U.S. leadership in partnership with others. In 1973, Freedom House's first comprehensive assessment identified only 44 "free" or democratic countries worldwide. This number has since increased to 84 and such growth in democracies can at least partly be attributed to the United States' commitment to upholding democratic values. Nonetheless, the global threat of democratic backsliding remains persistent, as countries in transition are moving toward democracy at a slower pace and many remain quasi-democracies, only further emphasizing the need for continued U.S. leadership in promoting and safeguarding these values.

The United States was flawed when Eleanor Roosevelt stepped forward, and it is still flawed today. However, just as in 1948, despite its imperfections, the United States needs to continue to lead and promote human freedom because there is no other alternative.

Daniel F. Runde is senior vice president, William A. Schreyer Chair, and director of the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Daniel F. Runde
Senior Vice President; William A. Schreyer Chair; Director, Project on Prosperity and Development