Human rights has a most ambiguous position in routine U.S. foreign policy. The subject in general is firmly fixed on the agenda, but its specific importance varies enormously across administrations and within the same administration at different times and on different issues. Even before the attacks on September 11, 2001, the George W. Bush administration had demonstrated a unilateralist and ultra-nationalist approach to most foreign policy issues, including human rights. As a general rule, security crises or the perception of national insecurity drives human rights lower among policy priorities. Thus as we would expect after the tragic attacks on New York City and Washington, the administration reduced its support for international human rights issues such as criminal justice, democracy promotion, and welfare rights. It also continued a strong unilateralist and ultra-nationalist approach to these issues. 1
Before we can say what has changed, if anything, on human rights in U.S. foreign policy after September 11, we need at least a cursory understanding of the subject in routine times. Starting in the mid-1970s, when Congress insisted that U.S. foreign policy pay considerable attention to human rights, all administrations have listed human rights among the official priorities of their foreign policy. Nevertheless, no administration has been able to secure a lasting and bipartisan commitment to specific human rights across time, situations, and issues. Neither the supposedly most realist administration (Richard M. Nixon's) nor initially the most liberal (Jimmy Carter's), nor any other came up with a white paper on human rights that both commanded broad support and had a serious policy impact.
This situation obtains because certain ideologies or ideational traditions regularly compete for dominance in thinking about human rights and foreign policy, but none of them consistently dominates. I speak primarily of two cultural ideologies: exceptionalism and isolationism reborn as unilateralism; and two intellectual ideologies, liberalism and realism.
U.S. exceptionalism—the notion that the U.S. reflects a great nation that is not ordinary but rather is divinely inspired to lead the world to greater