We need to reconsider the place of human rights in American
foreign policy. What started in the 1960s as a modest effort, mainly
in Latin America, to keep police from mistreating people has grown
into a global policy actively promoting more and more rights. And it
is producing unintended consequences.
Life is full of trade-offs. We give up one thing in order to get
something else. Nowhere does this happen more than in the conduct of
foreign policy. Human rights is one of many objectives the US has in
the world. Others include national security, foreign trade, the
protection of American business and other interests abroad, and
access to raw materials.
For any country, these have to be arranged in an order of
priority. It is rare that all are attainable. Almost always, some
have to be sacrificed for others. Increasingly, the human-rights
tail is wagging the foreign-policy dog. The question is not whether
human rights should be a part of foreign policy. It is, rather,
which human rights under what circumstances in what countries. A
former assistant secretary of state for human rights once defined
the circumstances for US intervention as "when we can make a
But at what price? What would we have to give up in order to make
a difference? And how much difference would it make if we did so?
Different people have different views about this. Some think that it
is worth giving up trade with China in order to promote human
rights. Others doubt that Chinese rights would improve even if we
gave up trade. Every case and every country are different; but when
we act accordingly, we open ourselves to the charge of
inconsistency. Sometimes we are open to the charge of hypocrisy as
well. The Brazilian labor minister took offense at a remark by
President Clinton about ending child labor in the Brazilian shoe
industry when, as he put it, America hasn't resolved all its own
problems. The US has no children making shoes, but it has plenty of
them, as does Brazil, peddling drugs.
Nor has either country solved all its racial problems. There are
differences over the relative importance of various human rights.
Most Americans think of rights as restraints on government that are
judicially enforceable - freedom of speech and religion or the right
to be secure in one's home. A good deal of the rest of the world
thinks of them as desirable social goals - the right to a job or to
education, health care or housing, or any number of such things. …