January 20, 2022


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Secretary Michael R. Pompeo With Nino Scalia of Madison’s Notes Podcast

24 min read

Michael R. Pompeo, Secretary of State

Via Teleconference

QUESTION:  Hello and welcome back to Madison’s Notes.  I’m your host, Nino Scalia, and we have with us today two very distinguished guests who truly need no introduction:  Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon, the chair of the U.S. Department of State’s Commission on Unalienable Rights.

Professor Glendon, Secretary Pompeo, welcome to Madison’s Notes.

SECRETARY POMPEO:  Great, thank you.  Good to be with you.


QUESTION:  Secretary Pompeo, I’d like to begin with you, and I’d like to take us back to July 8th, 2019.  On that day, you announced the establishment of the Department of State’s Commission on Unalienable Rights, and to my knowledge, this was unprecedented for a secretary of state to commission such a study of the principles informing our approach to human rights and foreign policy.  So tell us, why did you choose to establish this commission?

SECRETARY POMPEO:  Nino, I’d say two things.  One was I had observed that the central understandings about human rights that had come to be widely adhered to over time, that regime was in crisis and I wanted to see if there were things that the United States couldn’t do to right that ship.  And then second, I had seen that even in American foreign policy, it was a model that was – it was a bit of a mess because it wasn’t – the way the United States approached this problem set with respect to human rights had become unmoored from the American tradition and even a central understanding of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

And so I asked Professor Glendon and some others to join me in trying to identify the principles that made the American rights tradition distinctive and why they mattered, and then second, to place that in the context of the work that we do all around the world and help identify those principles that might begin to resolve this crisis in human rights that I had observed.

QUESTION:  Sure.  And this commission was not a monolith.  Sitting on this commission were men and women representing a wide variety of religious and philosophical backgrounds, certainly with different political opinions.

Professor Glendon, as I mentioned, you served as chair of this commission, so I’m curious, what sort of effect did being able to draw from these different perspectives have on the process of drafting the report and on the final report itself?

AMBASSADOR GLENDON:  As you may imagine, Nino, the commission’s diversity led to some pretty lively discussions.  We are Democrats, Republicans, and Independents like myself.  We were of different races, ethnic and religious backgrounds.  And like other Americans, we have different views on the hot-button issues of the day.  But we all shared one conviction, and that is that there is an urgent need for the United States to vigorously champion human rights in its foreign policy.

And in the end, those different perspectives enriched the report that I believe will advance that goal and even have – inspire other countries to do the same, especially liberal democracies that lately have had a tendency to subordinate human rights considerations to other interests.

QUESTION:  Let’s talk about whether or not we’ve seen other countries answer this call.  In August of 2020, the commission’s final report was released.  Secretary Pompeo, what impact has the commission’s report had so far?  Have you seen evidence that other nations, perhaps especially other liberal democracies, are willing to more vigorously defend these unalienable rights?

SECRETARY POMPEO:  Well, Nino, it’s still pretty early, but we’ve received lots of responses.  I’ll characterize them maybe this way:  First, we received a lot of feedback – you might even call it prebuttals – from some of the traditional organizations that fancy themselves the forebearers of the human rights tradition.  They were very concerned about what we were doing.  They were concerned that it would – the Trump administration that was engaged in this, I think.

And I’d urge everybody who gets a chance to hear this to go read the report.  I think they will be heartened by what Professor Glendon said, the diversity of thought that went into this that actually seriously undertook a principled review of the American human rights tradition and how America must lead on this across the world.

And so the after-effects of the report coming out have been really remarkable.  We’ve seen nations from Europe, from Africa, from Southeast Asia.  Professor Glendon and I had the joy to travel to Indonesia now, goodness, a handful of weeks back and to watch them appreciate the work that we had done.  And we can talk about this more:  Every nation has its own tradition with respect to human rights.  Every nation has a unique founding and creation.  We honor that here, the sovereignty of every country, but what we set down were these markers, these things that are unalienable, as our founders described them, because they’re different from other rights.  They’re the most fundamental rights.  They’re the things that are natural rights, because every human being has dignity, and we’ve seen other nations take that and begin to place it in their human rights tradition.  And I am hopeful that in the months and years ahead, the work that we did will provide a guide star, a North Star for them to consider their own nations’ human rights tradition and work alongside the United States to further that.

QUESTION:  Wonderful.  And Professor Glendon, you have experience as a diplomat yourself, having served as the U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, and now you’ve been at the vanguard, so to speak, in sharing this report.  Secretary Pompeo there mentioned your trip to Indonesia.  And the Secretary is right that it is early, but what have you seen so far?  What impact have you seen?

AMBASSADOR GLENDON:  Well, there are a couple of very recent and particularly gratifying developments.  One is that the world’s largest network of political parties, Centrist Democrat International – formerly the Christian Democrat International – has adopted a resolution commending the report, and it is currently organizing several events to showcase the report in various countries around the world in 2021.  And in fact, we’ve just received a letter from the president of that organization saying that they unreservedly embrace our report.

Another potentially very important endorsement is from the world’s largest independent Muslim organization.  This is a 90-million-member Indonesia-based group that supports religious freedom and condemns the use of religion as a pretext for violence.  And as the Secretary mentioned, it sponsored a conference on the report in Jakarta where the Secretary and I had the chance to speak and exchange views with the movement’s leadership, and they too are interested in following up with further dialogue in 2021.

QUESTION:  That’s tremendous.  That’s tremendous.  Descending now from unalienable rights generally to a specific unalienable right:  Secretary Pompeo, you’ve made clear that defending religious freedom must remain at the core of American foreign policy.  That’s your phrasing.  Why has this been a priority of yours, and what successes do you point to?

SECRETARY POMPEO:  We have at the State Department during my tenure prioritized this work because it is something that transcends any single nation, but in fact honors the sovereignty of these countries, but demands of them the simple task that they permit the people of their nation, their citizens, to practice their faith – or not to practice their faith, as they see fit.

If you get this part right, Nino, if you get religious freedom right across the world – something that frankly too many places don’t have today – if you get it right, these nations will be stronger.  They’ll be better partners and allies for the United States.  There will be less conflict.  I believe this deeply.  Our Founders understood that it should be placed in the First Amendment to our constitution, because it promotes not merely toleration for a diversity of faith and forms of worship, but welcomes persons of all faiths and citizens.  This is a central understanding.  We’ve created a wonderful forum at the State Department that we do annually now called the Religious Freedom Ministerial, where we bring in hundreds and hundreds of people – the largest human rights gatherings in the history of the State Department – from all faiths to come and talk about their country and how they can expand the capacity for their people to have religious freedom.  This will benefit the United States and our national security, and I am very confident we’ll make the world a more prosperous, safer place.

QUESTION:  And Professor Glendon, you’ve long written and spoken about the importance of religious freedom.  What can you say about the importance of the United States defending this most fundamental right in our foreign policy, and what successes of this administration and Secretary Pompeo’s State Department stand out to you in this field?

AMBASSADOR GLENDON:  Well, the first thing to point out is that for many years, religious freedom was often regularly ordinated to other interests in U.S. foreign policy despite clear direction from Congress in 1998 – a unanimous Congress, by the way – that religious freedom should have a special role in U.S. foreign policy.  Secretary Pompeo’s measures, the ministerials leading to an international cooperative religious freedom alliance, are tremendously important because one country speaking alone doesn’t command as much attention as a unified position.

So these measures have been a giant step toward delivering on the obligation imposed by Congress and toward restoring religious freedom to its proper place among other unalienable rights.  And just in time, because gross violations of religious freedom are at their highest level in many years.

QUESTION:  Secretary Pompeo, as was mentioned, you asked the commission to ground its work in part in the principles of the American founding.  And this commitment to America’s founding principles is also readily apparent in your speeches.  How do America’s founding principles inform her foreign policy today?

SECRETARY POMPEO:  They’re what makes us unique.  As I travel the world as the Secretary of State for the United States, it’s why leaders around the world want to see me.  They appreciate that our country, the civilization founded here in the United States, our culture, our founding traditions are things that they want to grab a hold of, they want to aspire to them.  Even with some countries that you might not think that are authoritarian regimes, they understand that this American experience teaches that while human rights is a never-ending struggle, it’s something that they want to hang onto and grasp.

So it’s really important that we don’t walk away from that and that leaders in America speak to our founding.

There is a counter-narrative that has been proposed by some here in the United States, not just recently but for a long time, about fatal flaws in our tradition and in our founding.  I reject that wholeheartedly.  We are an imperfect nation.  That’s why our founders talked about moving towards a more perfect union.  But make no mistake about it, this remains a nation that was founded on a set of principles that are unique and are wonderful and are blessed, and this Judeo-Christian tradition that America has we must hold on to, and we should speak about it as we engage with our counterparts around the world to help them understand our tradition and to help them find ways that they can help create an expansive space for human dignity in their countries as well.

QUESTION:  You said there that we must hold on to this tradition.  Unfortunately today, it seems that many Americans are no longer holding on to that tradition or, as you mentioned, maybe they just think this tradition was no good to begin with.  So Secretary Pompeo, what are the risks both to America and to the world if Americans stray from or lose faith in our founding principles?

SECRETARY POMPEO:  America has always been a beacon.  President Reagan talked about it being that special place.  It is the case that the United States is a nation that all countries look to.  They want to see that we honor the commitments that we have made to our history and to our traditions so that they can do the same inside of their countries, and they can see that the path towards improvement for improving the lives of their own people is one that America has understood the capacity for our little communities, right – our PTA boards and our school boards, our little league teams, our churches all across America – those are the things that have made America this special place.  They’re the things that both fundamentally protect our human rights in democratic states and human dignity.

If we walk away from those things, if we step away – and Professor Glendon operates a true mission field at America’s – in a – one of America’s elite educational institutions.  These are places we must protect.  We have to get back to this idea that America is this special place.  It is the greatest nation in the history of civilization.  And when we do that, nations around the world will want to be our friends, our trading partners, our security partners, all the things that protect and create prosperity here at home in America.

QUESTION:  Professor Glendon, these unalienable rights are central to the American tradition, right?  It’s right there in our Declaration of Independence:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”  And of course, this was a focal point of the commission’s work.

Professor Glendon, how do we know that these unalienable rights exist?

AMBASSADOR GLENDON:  Interestingly, as you’ve mentioned, our Declaration of Independence declares that these unalienable rights are self-evident, but after two devastating world wars, the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights spoke rather of affirming faith in human rights.  But underlying both of those approaches is a very old experience-based insight that goes all the way back to antiquity that if there are no rights that exist independently of the sovereign, then we are in a world where the strong do what they will and the weak and the vulnerable suffer the consequences.

QUESTION:  Secretary Pompeo, we know that you’re busy, so we have just one final question for you:  So many Americans today are anxious, anxious about our standing in the world, anxious about our domestic politics.  You’ve served our country for almost your entire adult life – in the Army, as a congressman, director of the CIA, and now as Secretary of State.  What would you say to these Americans who are so anxious about where our nation is today?

SECRETARY POMPEO:  Look, I would remind them that America is a rambunctious place.  It always has been.  When I was a congressman, people would say it’s just – it’s nastier than it’s always been.  I would remind them that no congressman had actually pulled a firearm on another congressman in a couple hundred years, so we should always be careful about characterizing today as the worst of all time.  It’s a little too naive.

But the truth of the matter is Americans should be concerned about it and should use that concern to take effective action.  Each of us has a responsibility to our families, to our local communities, all the places that truly make a difference, where you can go – any American citizen can go knit the small platoons together in the most important ways.

I have enormous confidence in America.  As I have traveled in these now two and a half years-plus as America’s Secretary of State, I’ve watched – when I land, I’ve watched these leaders around the world want to understand what’s going on in America, to – they appreciate what’s going on in America, they look to us to lead, and we must get it right here at home to do that.  We have to return to the central understandings that have made America so special.  And when we do that, and I am very confident that we will, I’m confident that the tradition on which this nation was founded will carry us forward and we will continue to be a beacon to those that – who are oppressed and those living difficult lives around the world for years and years to come.

QUESTION:  Well, Secretary Pompeo, you’ve done wonderful work so far.  I know there is still work to be done.  So cognizant of your time, we’ll draw to a close here.

Our guests today have been Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Mary Ann Glendon, the chair of the U.S. Department of State’s Commission on Unalienable Rights.  Professor Glendon, Secretary Pompeo, thank you so much for joining us today on Madison’s Notes.


SECRETARY POMPEO:  Nino, thank you.  Mary Ann, thank you, too.  So long.

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