The Paradox of U.S. Human Rights Policy
AMERICAN “EXCEPTIONALISM” in international human rights policy—the U.S. aversion to formal acceptance and enforcement of international human rights norms—poses a paradox.1 The paradox lies in the curious tension between the consistent rejection of the application of international norms, on the one hand, and the venerable U.S. tradition of support for human rights, in the form of judicial enforcement of human rights at home and unilateral action to promote civil and political rights abroad. The United States has, after all, the oldest continuous constitutional tradition of judicial enforcement of a written bill of rights in the world today. Nowhere in the world are civil liberties more robustly debated and defended in public and in court. From support for revolutionary France in the first years of the republic to military intervention in Haiti during the 1990s, moreover, American politicians and citizens recognized the integral link between the spread of civil liberties abroad and the defense of American ideals and interests. U.S. efforts to enforce global human rights standards through rhetorical disapproval, foreign aid, sanctions, military intervention, and even multilateral negotiations are arguably more vigorous than those of any other country.2 The United States acts even where—
1 I gratefully acknowledge research assistance from Mark Copelovitch, Jonathan Cra-
craft, Aron Fischer, James Perry, and Christopher Strawn; constructive criticism from An-
tonia Chayes, Stanley Hoffmann, Michael Ignatieff, Alex Keyssar, Harold Koh, Frank Mi-
chelman, Diane Orentlicher, Samantha Power, John Ruggie, Frederick Schauer, Anne-Marie
Slaughter, Henry Steiner, two anonymous critics, and participants in colloquia at Harvard's
Carr Center for Human Rights, New York University, Princeton University, and Yale Law
School. I acknowledge use of an unpublished paper by Hema Magge. I am grateful to the
Weatherhead Center for International Affairs and the Human Rights Committee at Harvard
University for research support. This paper draws on material introduced in Andrew Mora-
vcsik, “Why Is U.S. Human Rights Policy So Unilateralist?” in Multilateralism and U.S.
Foreign Policy: The Cost of Acting Alone, ed. Stewart Patrick and Shepard Forman (Boul-
der, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2001).
2 For useful overviews of U.S. unilateral policies, see David Forsythe, “The United States,
the United Nations, and Human Rights,” in The United States and Multilateral Institutions:
Patterns of Changing Instrumentality and Interest, ed. Margaret Karns and Karen Mingst
(Winchester, MA: Unwin Hyman, 1990), 261–88. The United States is so active that some
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Publication information: Book title: American Exceptionalism and Human Rights. Contributors: Michael Ignatieff - Editor. Publisher: Princeton University Press. Place of publication: Princeton, NJ. Publication year: 2005. Page number: 147.
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