Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and their successors each made calculated decisions about human rights. At times they placed other priorities ahead of human rights when formulating U.S. foreign policy. They also debated the best means of advancing human rights — a choice often reduced to “quiet diplomacy” versus public shaming.
But over the course of their administrations, none of these presidents argued that human rights had no place in U.S. policy. Instead, each believed that the United States’ support for human rights signaled the country’s distinctiveness, and each recognized that such efforts generated considerable “soft power.”
Pursuing a foreign policy that ignored human rights — a “values-free foreign policy,” as Washington Post editor Jackson Diehl recently put it — would mark a return to the amoral realism that briefly reigned in the 1970s. In the previous decade, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations had considered human rights violations in South Africa, Greece and Southern Rhodesia, among other places, as they shaped their foreign policy.
But that changed under Richard Nixon. In private conversations, Nixon and national security adviser Henry Kissinger assured foreign leaders that they would not “lecture” them about their “internal affairs.” They also told their subordinates that they were uninterested in reports of human rights abuses, such as the news that 150,000 to 200,000 people had been killed in ethnic violence in Burundi. Kissinger justified his disdain for human rights concerns with the argument that preventing nuclear war by reducing tension with the Soviets was a more significant foreign policy priority.
Such a transactional approach led members of Congress to ensure that human rights remained a component of foreign policy. Members drafted and passed legislation intended to safeguard American values by preventing U.S. military and security assistance to governments that engage in “a consistent pattern of gross violations of human rights.”
This legislation, signed by Gerald Ford, along with bureaucratic reforms at the State Department, ushered in greater attention to human rights in all aspects of U.S. foreign policy.
Congress passed these reforms not because Americans wanted other countries to adopt “our values,” as Tillerson put it. Instead, officials decided that the United States should no longer be in the business of supporting regimes that violated universal values, enshrined in international commitments such as the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Trump is understandably seeking to distance himself from Barack Obama’s foreign policy, which he views as a “total failure.” But considering human rights is not the province of one president or one party. Human rights, an admittedly elastic term, has bipartisan support, as Republican Sen. John McCain’s op-ed “Why We Must Support Human Rights” and a recent letter from 15 senators of both parties attest.
Thankfully, the Trump administration is likely to learn that the executive branch cannot always shift policy as dramatically as it would like.
Several factors will probably slow or impede Tillerson’s “values-free foreign policy.” First, popular support for human rights remains high among Americans. In 2015, 77 percent of Americans polled asserted that the United States should be the “world’s leader in promoting human rights.”
Second, consideration of human rights has been institutionalized in U.S. foreign policy since the mid-1970s, making it difficult to reverse course. In part, that is because many of those attempts occurred through congressional legislation, including key amendments to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, and congressional support for human rights endures.
Third, violations of human rights inspire substantial activism, and nongovernmental organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Human Rights First devote considerable resources to maintaining the public’s focus.
Beyond these impediments, abandoning human rights as a priority threatens the security of the United States. Such an approach risks heightening anti-Americanism in an already hostile world. Resentment will grow if the United States chooses short-term stability or support for repressive dictators over long-term commitments to democracy and individual rights. Regimes that violate human rights are unstable, making them unreliable allies for the United States.
Finally, disavowing human rights undermines our national identity; it erodes the moral fiber that binds us together as a country and inspires those who risk their lives to defend us.
If Tillerson and Trump continue on the course they have outlined, they will undo over 40 years of U.S. foreign policy, further undermining the country’s standing internationally and threatening U.S. interests. In the face of such a shortsighted shift, members of Congress, U.S. diplomats and activists of all types need to preserve and implement the country’s long-standing commitment to human rights.