American Values or Human Rights? U.S. Foreign Policy and the Fractured Myth of Virtuous Power

By Kane, John | Presidential Studies Quarterly, December 2003 | Go to article overview

American Values or Human Rights? U.S. Foreign Policy and the Fractured Myth of Virtuous Power


Kane, John, Presidential Studies Quarterly


May 2002 brought the odd spectacle of ex-President Jimmy Carter standing shoulder to shoulder in Havana with one of the U.S. government's oldest enemies, Cuban president Fidel Castro. Carter, on a mission to convey a message of friendship to the Cuban people and to seek some common ground between Cuba and the United States, made a point of meeting and encouraging local democratic, religious, and human rights activists. In a televised address, he endorsed the rights of dissidents and urged democracy on the island nation (Sullivan 2002). He also advocated an end to the U.S. embargo on Cuba (a call immediately echoed at home by 20 Democratic and 20 Republican representatives in Congress).

President George W. Bush's administration responded angrily to Carter's latest adventure as international arbiter. A senior state department official tried to sabotage the ex-president's visit with a carefully timed release of a report claiming that Cuba was conducting bio-weapons research and sharing its findings with other "rogue nations." Bush himself was quick to reaffirm the sanctions on trade and travel, demanding free elections and a liberalization of Cuba's economy as preconditions of U.S. relaxation. Bush was of course concerned with the votes of large numbers of Cuban-Americans in Florida whose Republican sympathies are closely tied to a strong anti-Castro stance. He was also reportedly angry, in a week when he was finalizing an arms reduction deal with the Russians, at being upstaged in the media by the peripatetic elder statesman. Nevertheless, there was a certain irony in his implied charge that Carter, who had once put human rights centrally on the foreign policy agenda of the United States, was giving aid and comfort to a notorious violator.

There was also an interesting question as to the essential difference, if any, between Carter's excursion and Bush's own previous visit (in February 2002) to China where, in a similarly televised address, he had issued a democratic challenge to the Chinese Communist leadership (Allen and Pan 2002). Bush had not, of course, made continuing U.S. Chinese trade dependent on democratic progress in China, but policy inconsistency is not what concerns me here. I want rather to draw attention to the differences and similarities between Bush's and Carter's proselytizing appeals. Carter, on his return to the United States, argued that his own and the administration's aims for Cuba were identical, and that only their opinions on means and timing were at variance (Carter 2002). I want to argue, however, that there were in contention here two distinct though connected rhetorical positions whose historical interrelationship it is important to understand. The first rhetoric is that of human rights per se; the second is the rhetoric of specifically American values. Thus in China, Bush invited the Chinese in the course of their historical economic transformation to draw on specifically "American ideals of liberty, faith and family" (Allan and Pan 2002; emphasis added). Bush had begun, quite deliberately and defiantly, to speak this language of American values only after the events of September 11. It was a highly significant rhetorical move aimed at reaffirming a national faith which, according to Henry Kissinger (2000; 2001), had been lost decades earlier.

Kissinger argued that the tradition known as American exceptionalism, within which American values were historically embedded, was one of the most important casualties of the Vietnam War. Characterizing Vietnam 25 years after the flail of Saigon as a national "tragedy," (1) he claimed that the war had opened a rift, still unhealed, in American society and destroyed faith in the uniqueness and universal relevance of American values. (2) One unfortunate consequence was a continuing failure to develop a new, rational foreign policy consensus (Kissinger 2000). Americans after Vietnam could no longer confidently assert their own values or feel comfortable about imposing them on others, and were consequently at a loss as to what to do with their own predominant power. …

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