John Shattuck Interview (2004): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Inching Forward: Human Rights Policy in the Clinton Administration: Conversation with John Shattuck, Chief Executive Officer, Kennedy Library Foundation, January 13, 2004, by Harry Kreisler

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Lessons Learned

Looking back at your career and the lessons that you've learned, and you have a distinguished career in civil rights and civil liberties and not just the international agenda that we've just been talking about, I'm curious what you draw from that experience about nation-building, building democratic institutions, and so on. You've looked at a lot of contexts. You've looked at the U.S. context in terms of civil rights. You were in the Czech Republic, looking at a place that was modern before it went through the communist period, and probably it was easier for it to emerge as a democracy. So in a nutshell, it's a very complicated world, we have a set of ideas of how to build nations and how to transform countries, to lead them toward democracy. What reflections do you have on that set of problems?

The most immediate and profound reflection that I can offer is that every situation is different, and that you have to understand the context of the situation in order to be able to be of any help at all. The medical world has the Hippocratic Oath -- "First, do no harm." If you're going to deal with this very complicated set of issues involving international intervention in the affairs of another sovereign country, even though it may be in trouble, you'd better first do no harm, and figure out how it is you can go about doing that.

You want to save lives at first if genocide is under way, and there are instances in which intervention, including military intervention, is absolutely essential. It should have been done in Rwanda. It was belatedly done in Bosnia. It was done in Afghanistan. It was done in Kosovo. It was done the wrong way in Iraq, but it needed to be done. You also cannot assume that any model of democracy, certainly our own model, but even any other model, is necessarily going to work in another country. So you'd better listen closely to what you're hearing.

Now, there are certain fundamental things that every democratic transformation needs. Above all, it needs the rule of law. That was my experience in the Czech Republic: although it has emerged from its communist past, it's still struggling very much with the rule of law. What do I mean by the rule of law? I mean predictability in human interactions and a sense that the government is not above the law and can be held accountable. And that's probably the one constant and universal in all these situations. It's in that area that the prospect for transformation in China is perhaps the greatest. The quiet, legal revolution that's going on in China, particularly around economic relations, but also that spills over into other personal relations, and the concept of accountability, is beginning to emerge. The rule of law is above all what's needed.

There is an adversary out there. It's somewhat murky. There was a sentence in your book that I want to quote: "I learned that evil was a reality, not an abstraction of moral philosophy, and that the killers of innocent people must be held accountable or evil will prevail." What did you mean by that, and what's the way of dealing with that?

This is a very popular view these days, that we've got to go to war against evil. I don't align myself, necessarily, with those who say that we need a kind of international jihad against evil, because there are many jihads and they're being conducted from many different points of view. I think above all we need humility and an understanding of the circumstances in which other people find themselves.

Having said that, however, I have looked in the face of those who have committed massive crimes, who have killed hundreds of thousands of people. I have met Slobodan Milosevic; I've dealt with him. If you do not hold people like that and others, who are perhaps less well-known, accountable for committing the kinds of crimes that they've committed and the bodies that they walked over in order to be able to advance their own cause, then you're going to have more of that.

Certainly, there's a battle inside everyone constantly between good and evil and always trying to choose the right path, which is why in the end the rule of law and the institutions that come from law are probably the single most important elements of human rights in the world. I'm very proud of the fact that on my watch we created two international criminal tribunals to try those who were responsible for genocide; the first time done since Nuremberg, and in many ways a more complicated process than Nuremberg because this wasn't victor's justice, this was international justice imposed in situations where many, many countries were involved. I also believe in the International Criminal Court, which I'm sad to say the current administration is doing its very best to undermine on the theory that it doesn't want any international rule of law imposing itself into the affairs of the United States. I do think people need to be held accountable for their crimes, and particularly those crimes that are the worst crimes that humanity has defined -- genocide and crimes against humanity which involve killings of massive numbers of people for political purposes.

One final question. You are head of the Kennedy Library. When one looks back at U.S. foreign policy, it was President Kennedy who one might say was the last American leader to provide a vision and broadly inspire masses of young people to participate in implementing that vision. Am I wrong that he was the last? And if not, what are the elements that we can hope for in the future?

Kennedy came at a very important point in our history. It was the middle of the Cold War. It was a time where we had gotten a little bit sleepy in the 1950s, and we needed to wake up, and we did wake up to challenges around us. He was a Cold War president, and he led the United States in its battle against international communism, against the Soviet Union, and mostly against its aggressive intentions. But he did so in a way that constantly gave hope to people that there were values that could be brought to bear on these problems, and not necessarily always military solutions.

The leadership that Kennedy showed in the Cuban Missile Crises is an extraordinary example of a president constantly pushing back to seek peace where others were pressing for war. He ultimately succeeded by knowing his enemy, Khrushchev, getting to know what was going on, and then trying to anticipate what it was that would back off this terrible crisis that almost led to nuclear war and frankly, which would have led to nuclear war if Kennedy had listened to the advice he was getting from his military advisors at that point. So he gave a sense of hope. There was, obviously, the style and the youth, and his call to commitment.

He also was the only president who, in my knowledge, anyway (I've haven't studied all these addresses), but the inaugural address contains repeated references to human rights. He calls for the great international alliance to battle the enemies of mankind together -- war itself, hunger, denial of human rights -- and he does this in the middle of the Cold War. So he's basically marshalling the resources to try to confront the Soviets, at the same time he's holding forth a vision of opportunity for the world to find peace. The fact that he was cut off so violently at the end made him a figure that people continue to look at as that young, vigorous president at the time.

John, on that positive note of hope, thank you very much for being here and discussing your years in the Clinton administration. Thank you.

Thank you very much.

And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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