The Cable

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Cabler of the Week: Michael Posner

Where we ask 10 questions that help us to understand one of the personalities making foreign policy in the Obama administration. This week’s subject: Assistant Secretary for Democracy Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner:  1. Which American president do you look to as the model for your approach to foreign policy ideology? Jefferson, Wilson, FDR, ...

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570171_100409_posner2.jpg

Where we ask 10 questions that help us to understand one of the personalities making foreign policy in the Obama administration. This week's subject: Assistant Secretary for Democracy Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner

1. Which American president do you look to as the model for your approach to foreign policy ideology? Jefferson, Wilson, FDR, LBJ, JFK, George W. Bush, someone else?

FDR. His four freedoms speech framed U.S. involvement in World War Two and was rooted in this country's commitment to freedom and liberty. The four freedoms speech ushered in the modern human rights movement, where a global commitment to human rights trumps notions of unlimited national sovereignty and non-interference in domestic affairs. It is fitting that after his death, Eleanor Roosevelt sustained his legacy by becoming the first chair of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in 1946, and by leading the drafting and adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. It would be difficult to overstate the moral and legal significance of that document as a singular effort to encode the universal rights that belong to all people in a legal agreement that binds together the nations of the world.

Where we ask 10 questions that help us to understand one of the personalities making foreign policy in the Obama administration. This week’s subject: Assistant Secretary for Democracy Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner

1. Which American president do you look to as the model for your approach to foreign policy ideology? Jefferson, Wilson, FDR, LBJ, JFK, George W. Bush, someone else?

FDR. His four freedoms speech framed U.S. involvement in World War Two and was rooted in this country’s commitment to freedom and liberty. The four freedoms speech ushered in the modern human rights movement, where a global commitment to human rights trumps notions of unlimited national sovereignty and non-interference in domestic affairs. It is fitting that after his death, Eleanor Roosevelt sustained his legacy by becoming the first chair of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in 1946, and by leading the drafting and adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. It would be difficult to overstate the moral and legal significance of that document as a singular effort to encode the universal rights that belong to all people in a legal agreement that binds together the nations of the world.

2. How do you view U.S. hegemony leadership in the world in the 21st century? Is it America a hegemon in decline or going strong? Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

The United States has the most powerful government in a world where governments as a whole have diminishing power and influence in relation to others forces. Nearly half of the 100 biggest economic entities in the world now are private companies. So in addressing economic policies, the role and influence of global companies is increasingly important. And on the other side, in the last 25 years we’ve witnessed an exponential increase in the number and influence of non-governmental organizations around the world, contributing policy advocacy, expertise and resources.

These NGOs address a wide range of problems and challenges that intersect with the traditional roles of government. In this much more complicated environment the United States has the strongest and most influential government in the world, and I view that as a good thing. Our commitment as a nation to human rights and democracy, our spirit of innovation and our fidelity to the rule of law are attributes that help define and contribute to our leadership. We often hear from citizens and even governments that our leadership is necessary and important in promoting and protecting human rights.                                                                

3. What’s the number one narrative about the Obama administration’s foreign policy so far that you feel has been mischaracterized by the media?

Some in the media have mischaracterized President Obama’s and Secretary Clinton’s commitment to global engagement as a capitulation or downplaying of human rights and democracy. Nothing could be further from the truth. This administration is committed to a principled engagement, where issues of human rights and democracy are squarely on the table and part of our relationship with every country and in every international institution. This does not mean that our engagement will be easy or that it will yield quick results. Our decision last spring to join the U.N. Human Rights Council is an example of this engagement. We know the Council has many flaws and that it will take some time to turn it around. But we made a judgment to join the Council and try to fix it from within, using U.S. leadership to rally others.

4. Who is the Obama administration foreign foreign-policy official that we should we watch more closely?

Dan Fried has the formidable task of leading our efforts to resettle Guantanamo detainees whom we have deemed eligible for transfer. Dan is the perfect guy for the job, with a long and distinguished career in the Foreign Service, especially in Europe. I had the opportunity to travel with Dan to Brussels earlier this year and to watch him in action. He combines patience, tenacity, a command of the subject matter and good, old-fashioned common sense. We are lucky to have him working on this ever-challenging portfolio.

5. What do you see as the top three challenges for U.S. foreign policy over the next three decades?

Terrorism: On the negative side, we will continue to confront terrorist groups like al Qaeda who operate without the constraints of a global system designed to regulate the conduct of governments. The challenge for us is to develop and utilize the right mix of tools for addressing this threat, including military and security, diplomatic, legal, economic, and other approaches.

Internet/new media: The Internet and other new technologies enable an unprecedented level of communication and connection among people-in many ways, the Internet is really the largest collaborative effort humankind has ever seen. The challenge is to figure out how to continue to foster the enormous potential of the Internet while addressing the need for law enforcement and security in a way that protects fundamental rights and freedoms.

Civil society: Strengthening civil society as a key ingredient in our efforts to help support sustainable democracies around the world. We need to find new ways to amplify the voices of civil society activists, and to help provide them with more space to operate within their own societies. And the challenge is how we do so at a time when more and more governments are constraining the rights of these groups to organize, operate and receive foreign funding.

6. Why did you decide to go to work for the Obama administration? What do you hope to accomplish?

I had the good fortune to work on these issues from outside of government for 30 years with Human Rights First. I always thought that if the opportunity presented itself, I would like to work on these issues from within the government. When President Obama was elected and then recruited Secretary Clinton, I knew this was the right time for me to serve. Both bring an extraordinary commitment to human rights and the promotion of democracy, a commitment that stems from their own life experience.

My goal in this job is to extend the circle of those in our government who advocate for human rights so that the message I am delivering is constantly being reinforced by others. You might call this a whole-of-government approach to human rights. If we can extend the circle, our human rights policies will have greater resonance and will help protect people who are the most vulnerable to abuses.

7. Who was your mentor in the early stages of your career and how did they help you?

Roger Baldwin was an early mentor. He was a founder and longtime director of the ACLU, but also had a passionate commitment to international human rights. I worked with Roger in his last years (he lived to be 97 years old), and learned from him the importance of sustained advocacy and perseverance. A second mentor is Louis Henkin with whom I taught at Columbia Law School. Lou played a critical role in shaping and developing international human rights law and was a wise, generous and inspiring teacher to me as I came into this field.

8. Who is the foreign leader or figure you most admire and why?

There are many human rights heroes around the world, people who take unimaginable risks to stand for an ideal. Andrei Sakharov is one of those human rights heroes I most admired, in part because he gave up a privileged position as a leading scientist in the USSR to fight for human rights. He did so at a time when the prospect for change was very dim. And in doing so, he paid a steep personal price, but also inspired many others to take up the banner of freedom and human rights.

9. What is your favorite country to visit for pleasure and what should we do when we go there?

I will mention three very different places. The first is Ireland, which I love so much because of the warmth and good cheer of her people. Though the countryside is green and beautiful, an evening spent in just about any pub with Irish friends can’t be beat. Second is Hong Kong. Maybe it is because I have lived most of my life in New York and Chicago that I enjoy the pace of big cities, but Hong Kong has an energy and vitality that never gets old. When you go there, be sure to ride the star ferry at night for a wonderful view of the city. And finally Kenya, where my wife and I spent our honeymoon. East Africa has some of the most spectacular natural wonders of the world. Camping in the parks — and seeing both the beauty of those expansive vistas and the wildlife — is an unforgettable experience.

10. If you had the chance to meet with any leading figure from history, who would it be and what would you say to them?

Eleanor Roosevelt is a personal hero and inspiration to me. I would have loved to have been with her in December of 1948 as she steered the Universal Declaration on Human Rights through the United Nations. What I would have to say to her is — thank you.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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