Washington (CNN) -- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has been criticized as being too soft on human rights issues, said the "pragmatic" Obama administration approach is designed to make a difference, not prove a point.
And she said that human rights talks with China and Russia may be best conducted "behind closed doors."
"Principled pragmatism informs our approach on human rights with key countries like China and Russia," Clinton said Monday at Georgetown University in a speech used to spell out the Obama administration's broad goals on human rights.
"Cooperation with each is critical to the health of the global economy and the non-proliferation agenda, to managing security issues like North Korea and Iran, and to addressing world problems like climate change." Clinton was criticized by human rights activists during a trip to Asia in February when she said human rights should not interfere with talks with China about cooperation on those same issues.
"The United States seeks positive relationships with China and Russia," Clinton said Monday, while mentioning China's crackdown on minorities in Tibet and the murders of activists and journalists in Russia.
"Sometimes, we will have the most impact by publicly denouncing a government action, like the coup in Honduras or the violence in Guinea. Other times, we will be more likely to help the oppressed by engaging in tough negotiations behind closed doors, like pressing China and Russia as part of our broader agenda," Clinton said. "In every instance, our aim will be to make a difference, not to prove a point."
Regarding Iran, Clinton said the United States had separate diplomatic paths, designed both to persuade Iranian leaders to halt their nuclear program and to allow more dissent voices inside their country.
"In Iran, we have offered to negotiate directly with the government on nuclear issues, but have at the same time expressed solidarity with those inside struggling for democratic change," Clinton said. "As President Obama said in his Nobel speech last week, 'they have us on their side.'"
Georgetown University students welcomed her with cheers when she entered the ornate Gaston Hall auditorium. After Clinton's formal address, Iranian-American graduate student Roya Soleimani asked her what the United States can do to support protests in Iran six months after its disputed election and halt Iran's nuclear program.
"It has been a delicate walk but I think the activists inside Iran know that we support them," Clinton said. She described the situation as "a hard call" for the United States after the June vote in Iran sparked violent street protests.
"We wanted to convey clear support, but we didn't want the attentions shifted from the legitimate concerns (of the protesters) to the United States because we had nothing to do with the spontaneous reaction that grew up in response to the behavior of the Iranian government."
On concerns about the Iranian nuclear program, Clinton said stopping the spread of nuclear weapons is a human-rights issue. "What would be worse than nuclear material or even nuclear weapons being in the hands of state or a non-state actor that could be used to intimidate or threaten or even destroy?" Clinton said.
"We do not want to be in an either-or position -- are we going to pursue (nuclear) non-proliferation with Iran, or are we going to support the demonstrators inside Iran? We are going to do both to the best of our ability to get the result that will further the cause that we are seeking to support."