National History and Universal Values: Prioritizing Human Rights in U.S. Foreign Policy

By McCain, John | The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

National History and Universal Values: Prioritizing Human Rights in U.S. Foreign Policy


McCain, John, The Brown Journal of World Affairs


I AM A FIRM BELIEVER that history holds many important lessons for current U.S. foreign policy. If we do not understand where we have been, we will have a more difficult time knowing where we need to go. Some of the better lessons can be found in the five decades of concerted effort that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and, soon thereafter, the end of the Soviet Union and the collapse of communism. Last year, on the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Wall, I had a chance to think back on the events that led up to that momentous day and of all the profound lessons that stood out. One that seemed most relevant to our present debates and challenges was the importance of supporting human rights in strengthening the effectiveness of U.S. foreign policy.

On 9 November 1989, German citizens poured into the streets of Berlin by the millions, tore down one of authoritarianism's most offensive monuments, and in so doing, not only reunited their nation, but brought forth the promise of a Europe whole, free, and at peace. The shockwaves of that day reverberated for years to come-realigning the tectonic plates of geopolitics, and expanding the very boundaries of what people at the time thought possible. It led directly to peaceful revolutions that liberated central and Eastern Europe; the collapse of an evil empire that threatened the peace of the world for decades; the transformation of the world's greatest alliance, NATO, into an institution for unifying Europe; and the single largest expansion of freedom in history, which has stretched across Asia, deep into Africa, and throughout the western hemisphere. This is the world in which we now live, and to think, all of it began only 20 years ago last November.

To the United States' older generation, the anniversary brings back many other memories-memories of "the long twilight struggle" that preceded the fall of the Wall. I remember moments when the fate of the world seemed to hang in the balance, but wise and brave decisions by U.S. citizens of both parties, and by the United States' allies, helped to keep the peace. I remember the enormous sacrifice that this peace entailed-the many brave souls, some of them my friends, who gave their lives to win the cold war. Most of all, I remember five long decades when, for all our many differences, the United States nonetheless maintained a bipartisan commitment to the freedom and security of our allies. Together, we in the West kept faith with those on the other side of the walls of that world struggle, confident that they wanted the same things we did-liberty, equality, justice, an opportunity to prosper by their own talents, and a chance to live under the rule of law-not under the thumbs of tyrants.

It is true that the Berlin Wall fell for many reasons. Economic power had a lot to do with it-for without the combined wealth of the West, we would never have overcome our darkest hours of need. Military power also had a lot to do with it-for without the strength to defend ourselves, our dreams of peace would have remained just that. But, beyond all of this, what toppled the Berlin Wall was the West's support for all behind the Iron Curtain who struggled for universal human rights.

This support for human rights came from European allies like Konrad Adenauer, Helmut Kohl, and Margaret Thatcher. It came from Democrats like Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Scoop Jackson. And it came from Republicans like Ronald Reagan, whose message of solidarity with the oppressed carried into the coldest gulags of the Soviet empire. He stood before the bleakest symbol of the cold war, and told Mr. Gorbachev to tear the awful thing down.

In retrospect, this all seems unobjectionable. However, it was anything but. Some objected because they thought the United States had no right to preach moral values when we failed to live up to them ourselves. Others objected because they felt the most the United States could do for human rights was to lead by example, but not take sides on the internal matters of other countries. …

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