Academic journal article The Historian

What Is a Human Rights Foreign Policy?: Definitions, Double Standards, and the Carter Administration

Academic journal article The Historian

What Is a Human Rights Foreign Policy?: Definitions, Double Standards, and the Carter Administration

Article excerpt

ON A COLD but clear January morning in 1977, newly elected President Jimmy Carter took to the podium on the Capitol's East Portico. Thousands crowded in the Capitol Plaza below, projecting onto this man their hope for a better America. Carter understood the strength of their yearning. In his short "speech of sober optimism," he promised the restoration of national pride and relieved them of the burden of recent turmoil. (1) The days of Vietnam and Watergate were over, he declared: "Let our recent mistakes bring a resurgent commitment to the basic principles of our Nation, for we know that if we despise our own government, we have no future. We recall in special times when we have stood briefly, but magnificently, united. In those times no prize was beyond our grasp." (2)

The inaugural speech captured an idea that had become increasingly apparent to Carter during his election campaign. At the heart of the national crisis was America's role in the world: a country supposedly founded on "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" had found itself on the wrong side of all three in various foreign lands. Carter, intent on reversing the brutal realpolitik institutionalized by the so-called "Nixinger" administration, latched onto a concept that had both moral and political appeal: universal human rights. (3) This article examines the administration's attempt to define a foreign policy in which this concept would play a central role.

The idea of human rights seemed like a rare Washington gem. The combination of political potency with definitional ambiguity made it a powerful glue with which Carter hoped to unite a fracturing Democratic Party. Liberals, critical of the Vietnam War and America's support for authoritarian regimes, embraced human rights partly to escape their "guilt by association." For the burgeoning neoconservative movement, the policy meant confronting the Soviet Union with renewed vigor after years of disappointing detente. (4)

Sweeping statements might work on the campaign trail, but policy-making requires definition, selection and prioritization. Carter's administration officials soon discovered that the malleability of the human rights concept was both a blessing and a curse. An airy rhetorical commitment could please most parties, but a concrete policy could not. In undertaking a close examination of the Carter administration's pioneering attempt to devise a human rights policy, this article sheds light on enduring dilemmas faced by contemporary policymakers. Like his predecessors and successors alike, Carter had to manage all the trials and tribulations of traditional security politics. However, added to the mix were the philosophically challenging and politically thorny questions inherent in elevating the role of morality in foreign policy. (5)

For a start, what actually are human rights? The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is a starting point, but no government policy can feasibly promote or protect every enumerated right. (6) Inevitably, any human rights policy demands selectivity and prioritization. Is the right to security of person--such as freedom from torture or degrading treatment--the pre-eminent human right? Or are political rights, such as recourse to justice, the ability to choose one's government, or freedom of emigration, the most important? Are any of these rights meaningful, if one does not enjoy "a standard of living adequate for the health and wellbeing of himself and his family"? (7)

From there, dilemmas proliferate. A government must determine what tools it has at its disposal, and how best to wield them in the pursuit of human rights. The blurred line separating activism from hubris demands constant attention, as does the distinction between cultural difference and universally condemnable violations. Compromising human rights considerations in favor of security interests raises unsavory questions about what it means to be moral in the international system. …

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