Magazine article Foreign Policy in Focus

Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Policy

Magazine article Foreign Policy in Focus

Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Policy

Article excerpt

In the aftermath of the failure to find Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, human rights have become the most prominent justification for the Iraq War in statements by President George W. Bush and other administration officials. This represents the latest of what has become a routine pattern for numerous U.S. administrations: invoking human rights to justify a range of foreign policy decisions and military ventures. But this human rights talk has not been supported by a human rights walk. Policymakers consistently apply a double standard to human rights norms: one that the rest of the world must observe but which the U.S. can safely ignore.


Talk of human rights has become the political equivalent of a "bait and switch tactic." Like the car salesman promoting an amazing but bogus deal in order to get people into his showroom and to boost his reputation as a preferred dealer, politicians champion human rights in order to induce desired behaviors in others and to nurture a positive self-image. Then, as soon as the desired behavior occurs, they offer a substitute sentiment unreflective of a genuine concern for rights. Instead of promoting just solutions to contemporary foreign policy dilemmas, rights talk is becoming just another way to dupe otherwise-unwilling allies into supporting U.S. interests.

What's going wrong with rights?

There is nothing wrong with human rights per se, but they are often opportunistically seized upon as the best available choice for framing arguments and making policy choices. Other options, which may not be intrinsically bad, look less appealing when compared to the pretty veneer of human rights. What is wrong is that human rights remains only an option and has not achieved the status of an imperative. Furthermore, in interplay with other policies, human rights are vulnerable to misuse by powerful states plying the cause for their own benefit.

To extend the car dealer analogy, the car is a desired commodity promised by the dealer in an attractive package, but when the customer arrives, he or she finds that the option actually offered is not the same as the advertised special. The car dealer misleads people through his power of influence, stemming from the desired product he has to offer and from the magnified voice that his wealth affords him (i.e., his ability to advertise). Like the car dealer, the U.S. can use its wealth and influence to mislead other states about its commitment to a human rights framework, appearing to support universal human rights standards while actually applying double standards.

Recognizing the ethical problems with "bait and switch" car dealers, consumer protection laws seek to set advertising requirements that diminish the possibility for such behavior. Perhaps even more influential is the limit to the amount of nonsense and trickery that the American consumer is willing to tolerate. What is needed with respect to human rights is a similar safety mechanism--a "consumer protection provision" regarding human rights and limits to what is socially acceptable--to eliminate or at least highly restrict the possibility that they will be trumped by lesser, competing norms.

The misuse of human rights gets to the heart of international relations theories about how norms spread and gain influence. For a long time, the most popular theory of norm diffusion has been the socialization and persuasion approach championed by such international relations thinkers as Thomas Risse and Kathryn Sikkink. According to this school of thought, dialogue, communication, and argumentation are essential mechanisms for the socialization of norms. (1) Arguing for the inherent goodness of human rights may shame states into action in individual instances, and, as human rights norms are internalized, this process may provoke a shift in identity, interests, and expectations. The best advocates are those that make the most convincing or skillful argument in favor of one norm over another. …

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