On January 22, 2009, his second full day in office, U.S. President Barack Obama signed an executive order prohibiting the use of torture by the U.S. government and revoking legal interpretations from President George W. Bush’s administration that denied protections under international law to certain overseas detainees. Few Americans outside of national security policy circles took note of the executive order. But it sent a clear message to U.S. partners and allies that Obama was breaking with his predecessor and recommitting the United States to the shared values of the democratic world.
As a deputy assistant secretary of state in the early years of the Obama administration, I heard frequently from U.S. allies about the importance of Obama’s ban on torture. My counterparts sometimes also raised concerns about U.S. surveillance, detention, and use of drones. But those enduring concerns didn’t change the perception that Obama believed in universal values—and believed they should apply universally, including to the United States. The torture ban became a kind of metonym for U.S. recommitment to these shared values, and because it addressed a shortcoming that had been criticized by allies and partners, it signaled U.S. commitment to repairing those relationships, too.