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On The Front Lines of Democracy

ChinaTufts graduate and Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor David Kramer reflects on a recent trip to China and his mission to promote democracy.


For David Kramer, promoting freedom around the world is more than just an admirable ideal; it's a full-time job. Since being appointed as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor in March, the Tufts graduate has been to China, Pakistan and Vietnam, to name a few, touting the value of democratic governance.

"What we try to do is to push for people to have the right to choose, whether it's to choose to speak out on issues, to believe in one religion or another, to assemble, to associate with a party, to voice opposition to the government," he says. "We're not trying to promote an American system. We're trying to promote respect for universal standards on human rights."

"We're not trying to promote an American system. We're trying to promote respect for universal standards on human rights."

— David Kramer

Kramer, a Massachusetts native who graduated from Tufts in 1986 with a double major in political science and Soviet studies, previously served as deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs. He also currently represents the executive branch on the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, which was created in 2000 to monitor human rights and rule-of-law developments in China.

Early in his career, Kramer focused on the Soviet Union, working at think tanks such as the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He has carried an interest in human rights in the former Communist nation with him throughout his career.

Though critics say the United States has been pushing its brand of democracy onto other nations, Kramer—the diplomat on the front lines of U.S. democratic outreach to the world—says that characterization is not accurate.

"All we're trying to do is to give people an opportunity to choose their future themselves. We can't impose our system on others," says Kramer. "We also feel that governments, as the old expression says, are by and for the people. Sadly, there are regimes around the world that don't follow that dictum at all."

Connecting With China

In May, Kramer paid his first visit to China, re-opening a human rights dialogue that had been on hiatus since 2002. The resumption of the dialogue had been brokered by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during a February visit to the country.

"We felt particularly with the Olympics coming up that resuming the dialogue this year made sense," says Kramer.

Kramer says the meeting was a success, with comprehensive, candid talks between the U.S. and Chinese delegations on topics such as freedom of the press, freedom of religion, prisoner rights and rule of law concerns, among other sensitive issues. He also notes a speech he gave to students and professors at Beijing Foreign Affairs University as a highlight of the trip.

"What was good about this was that we actually had a real dialogue," he says. "It was not one side reading from a set of talking points and the other side not paying attention." Kramer also was encouraged by the involvement of representatives from offices beyond the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, including the Ministries of Public Security and Religious Affairs.

"It's our hope that the dialogue that we have resumed leads to concrete results," says Kramer.

On May 25, 2008, Kramer gave a talk at Beijing Foreign Affairs University entitled "Human Rights, Democracy, and the U.S. Relationship With China." [ Read text of speech ]

He cites China's response to the deadly May earthquake in the Sichuan province as a model, noting how receptive the nation was in granting foreign aid workers and members of the media access to the region.

While China has made some progress, Kramer says that certain domestic issues—such as pressure on bloggers and access for journalists—continue to be concerns. On the international stage, Kramer says that while China does have an opportunity to use its influence to push for positive change with nations such as Burma and Sudan—and has done so—the international community must be realistic about how much sway China actually has.

"There's a tendency to start assigning to China responsibility or levels of influence greater than really exist," says Kramer.

'A Good Fit'

Kramer cites the international relations, political science and Soviet studies programs at Tufts, as well as exposure to The Fletcher School, as being "very helpful" in preparing him for his career.

"I always had an interest in policy even when I was an undergrad," he says. "It's been the right thing to do. It's been a good fit."

As a political appointee, Kramer's circumstances could change depending on the outcome of the upcoming election.

"To borrow a phrase from the president, I have to sprint to the finish line," says Kramer. "There's a lot to try to do in the short period of time I have available, but the challenges we face in the world don't simply stop because the United States is going through a presidential election. We still have to do all we can to advance the cause of democracy, freedom and human rights around the world, and that's what I plan to do."


Profile written by Georgiana Cohen, Office of Web Communications

Homepage photo: Chinese paramilitary police stands guard as athletes walk past the Olympic National Stadium "Bird Nest" during the Race Walking Challenge in Beijing, China, Friday, April 18, 2008. The race walking was the first event held at the National Stadium, ahead of the Olympic Games this August. (Andy Wong / Associated Press)

Other photo: Photo of Kramer courtesy of U.S. Department of State web site

This story originally ran on July 14, 2008.