Foreign and Defense Policy

The Place Human Rights Ought to Have in American Foreign Policy

In his approach to foreign policy President Obama has downplayed human rights on almost every front, from matters of policy to matters of symbolism. It is clearly not something Obama or his secretary of State have much interest in. I noticed, for example, that recently the playwright-turned-politician Vaclav Havel asked a New York Times reporter if it was true that President Obama had refused to meet with the Dalai Lama in Washington. When told that the meeting had been postponed in order to mollify the Chinese, Havel said, “it is only a minor compromise. But exactly with these minor compromises start the big and dangerous ones, the real problems.”

The place human rights ought to have in American foreign policy will become an increasingly important topic in our political conversation. And in thinking through that relationship, I recently came across the words of two wise figures which bear on this matter. One is William F. Buckley Jr., who was asked in an interview in May 1970 what event or development in the 1960s stood out in his mind as important. Buckley answered, “the philosophical acceptance of coexistence by the West.” When asked why philosophical, Buckley said this:

Because a military acceptance of coexistence is one thing; that I understand. But since America is, for good reasons and bad, a moralistic power, the philosophical acceptance of coexistence ends up in hot pursuit of reasons for that acceptance. We continue to find excuses for being cordial to the Soviet Union; our denunciations of that country’s periodic barbarisms—as in Czechoslovakia—become purely perfunctory. This is a callousing experience; it is a lesion of our moral conscience, the historical effects of which cannot be calculated, but they will be bad.

Boston University’s Peter Berger took to the pages of Commentary almost a dozen years later, making a somewhat similar point. The United States, Berger wrote, is not a nation like any other, but one inextricably linked to a particular political creed. He went on to say this:

This political creed, which was the original raison d’etre and continues to be the principle of legitimacy of the American nation-state, has as its very core a number of propositions about human rights. It follows that the idea that American foreign policy could be conducted in a Machiavellian spirit detached from any moral considerations is not only repugnant to American traditions but eminently impractical. Put differently, in the case of the United States there is a necessary connection between national interest and national values, and even a Realpolitik worthy of that name will have to take this aspect of social reality into account.

Just so. But the president and his administration do not see things quite this way. They seem to view championing human rights as simply moralizing. They are the kind of people who, I think it’s fair to say, reacted with anger and contempt when Ronald Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” and when George W. Bush referred to Iran, Iraq (under Saddam Hussein), and North Korea as an “axis of evil.” Set aside the fact that to use the adjective “evil” for these regimes was apposite; such things don’t really matter. Saying them in public—and acting as if the nature of regimes ought to matter in state-to-state dealings—is viewed as simplistic, antagonistic, and counterproductive.

The Obama administration is learning the hard way, though, that placating our adversaries is a road to failure, and can be a road to ruin. Applying moral categories to the problems we face is actually useful and deeply realistic. The president and his team will also learn soon enough, I think, that you cannot pry apart moral considerations from the conduct of American foreign policy without paying a price on the home front. We are a people, after all, who are blood of the blood and flesh of the flesh of those who wrote the Declaration, and that electric chord links us together even still.

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