President Obama speaks about his administration's counterterrorism policy at the National Defense University.

© 2013 Reuters

President Obama has disappointed many by failing to make human rights a priority. True, at times he has stood up for people’s rights where there are few strategic interests at play—in such places as Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya, Venezuela and Zimbabwe. But his readiness to compromise in places like Afghanistan, Egypt, Mexico, Uzbekistan and Yemen leaves the impression that he is not committed to the human rights ideal.

In Fred Kaplan’s view, that makes Obama a realist. But he arrives at that conclusion only by contrasting Obama’s policies with a caricature of idealism. If idealism means the string of Bush-era policies that Kaplan lists—“triumphalism,” “missionary zeal,” “regime-changing wars,” never “negotiating with dreadful rulers”—I would abandon it too. But this is not the 19th century, and foreign policy no longer concerns only relations among sovereigns. After all, idealism was hardly needed when you could buy off an adversary by cutting a deal (or marrying your daughter to its monarch). The world has changed. Or more to the point, our understanding of it has. It can no longer credibly be called “realistic” to pretend that people have no agency beyond the machinations of their rulers, or that we can afford to be indifferent to whether those rulers are autocrats or democrats.

People do matter. As we’ve learned from Ukraine over the past week or the Arab Spring over the past three years or even Russia and China as they meet public demands with a combination of repression and responsiveness, even autocratic governments need to maintain a degree of popular consent to their rule. And popular agency has been greatly empowered as the popular conversation of social media overwhelms the censorship that has been a traditional foundation of authoritarian rule. To ignore people’s aspirations—to speak only to their rulers, not their ideals—is not realism. It is folly.

People notice whether the United States stands up for their rights. Not because deep change can be imposed from the outside, as George W. Bush wanted us to believe, but because the United States can help to defend the political space in which people can advance their own rights. It is not just idealist Americans who want the U.S. government to help people defend their rights before repressive rulers. There are also solid realistic reasons why Washington should keep people’s ideals a priority when it interacts with their governments. Embracing a people’s democratic aspirations builds relationships that are more likely to endure than the transitory interests of a head of state. And a U.S. government that couples backroom discussions with public, rights-focused diplomacy enlists rather than ignores the social media-empowered public that is most likely to move policy in its capital.

By contrast, a U.S. government that forsakes human rights ideals is one that is likely to be seen—and taken advantage of—as lacking resolve. When Obama tried to placate Beijing at the time of his first visit by downplaying rights and delaying a meeting with the Dalai Lama, China saw this as a sign of weakness to be exploited. Vladimir Putin came to a similar conclusion when Obama refused to expand the Magnitsky list of Russian rights abusers whose assets will be seized or to sanction banks that facilitate the resupply of Bashar al-Assad’s killing machine. Those positions emboldened the Kremlin to support Ukraine’s abusive former leader against a popular uprising and to protect the Syrian government as it slaughters and deprives civilians in opposition-held areas.

Some see U.S. support for rights as just another interest to be bargained away rather than a fundamental value relinquished only rarely and reluctantly, but a perceived lack of commitment undermines Washington’s ability to uphold those rights—hardly a smart realist position. The abandonment of ideals also often leaves the United States making concessions in the name of short-term goals at the expense of longer-term strategic interests—for example, building relations with the latest autocrat in Cairo rather than standing with the Egyptian people’s desire for a rights-respecting democracy.

Remembering the importance of ideals doesn’t mean that autocrats should always be ignored or ostracized. One must deal with the world as it is. But to maximize its positive influence and esteem, the U.S. government should never forget that people around the world share a common desire for freedom and respect for their rights. Acting on that reality whenever possible is what “realism” should be about.