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For a Realistic US Foreign Human Rights Policy

By Friedbert Pflueger, November 14, 2009


 U.S. Human Rights Policy

1982 in Berlin: Ronald Reagan visited the divided city. Together with Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and Governing Mayor Richard von Weizsäcker, the U.S.-president visited Checkpoint Charlie. At that time I was the Personal Assistant to the Mayor. I witnessed the following scene: There was this famous white line, the dividing line between the American and the Russian Sector, a couple of meters away the wall, the heavily armed, cruel border, which divided Berlin, Germany, Europe, and, well, the whole world. The three leaders stood behind that white line, looked sadly at the other side, carfully observed by Russian soldiers on the watchtower, just a few meters away.

Suddenly Ronald Reagan made an unexpected move: he made a demonstrative step forward, visibly surpassing the white line. Schmidt and Weizsäcker were obviously not happy with that move: the code of cooperation and detente did not allow such provocations. There was the wall that was reality. The acceptance of the status quo was in their eyes the prerequisite for a peaceful living next to each other in times of cold war and nuclear deterrence. But what could they do: Ronnie did not care.

The step was not planned, as we learned later, he just did it. And the signal was all too clear: America did not accept that dividing line. America wanted to change the status quo, not to freeze it.

This example shows two different traditional approaches to foreign policy in the U.S.A. and in Europe. In Europe international relations were mainly coined by key terms like balance of power, stability or national interest. In America the rhetoric was mostly dominated by words like change, spread of freedom and human rights. Americans have always felt that they are exceptional, that they have a mission to bring the ideas of the American Constitution to the world. Europeans related - at least until recently - more to the traditional concepts of collective security systems, of equilibrium and balance. I will give you some thoughts about those topics in my introductory lecture soon.

Today I would like to elaborate on idealism and realism in foreign affairs. To do so I shall mainly use the example of U.S. foreign and human rights policy. Here the main focus will be on the last four decades - from Jimmy Carter to Barrak Obama, both presidents, both members of the Democratic Party, who had to deal with the consequences that two wars -Vietnam and Iraq - have had on America and the rest of the world. Both were swept into office by a public opinion and both are Nobel Peace Price Laureats.

U.S.-Idealism in History: The "City upon the Hill"

American exeptionalism, a special sence of mission is deeply rooted in the history of the United States. While in Europe the concept of the nation-state was older than freedom and democracy, the birth of the U.S.A. went hand in hand with the struggle for human rights and selfdetermination. The U.S. cannot decouple itself from human rights, because it is this what the nation is all about. From it's very inception the U.S. have vowed the universal significance of inalienable human rights. The preamble of Independence termed it "self-evident thruths" that "... all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

This conviction that came to the forefront during the American Revolution was coupled with a general faith in progress that went beyond America, a religious missionary zeal and the Enlightenment's human tights postulate. In the "great American dream", the "New World" was to become the starting point and model of an international order in which personal freedoms are respected everywhere. As Arthur Schlesinger put it: "Americans have agreed since 1779 that the United States must be the beacon of human rights to an unregenerate world".

The conviction of a global historic mission has been upheld throughout the more than 200 years since the days of the Founding Fathers. The only thing that has always given rise to controversy, was how best to convey the values of free America to the rest of the world. Should the U.S.A. actively carry its human rights notion to the rest of the world by "missionising" other peoples? Or should it, instead, keep out of the turmoil of world politics, trusting that the example of its own free and democratic order would engender progress abroad?

In the founding phase of the U.S.A. and extending deep into the 19th century, the prevailing view was that America should keep out of the affairs of other nations and restrict to the role of a "City upon the Hill" that would serve as an exemple.

Though isolationism was doubtless the most prominent trait of America's foreign policy in the 19th Century, there was, just under the surface, a missionising drive as expressed in the "frontier idea" and the concept of "Manifest Destiny". Initially, though, the effect was felt only on the North American continent. In the 19th Century, the U.S.A. was entirely absorbed in the task of cementing Christianity, civil liberties, civilisation and progress to new frontiers within America.

But the "Manifest Destiny"-idea was soon to be extended beyond America's home continent. A mayor motivation for America's expansionism in the late 19th Century was the desire to open up new markets and the pursuit of commercial interests in general. But, as in the case of the 1898 Spanish-American War, idealistic motives also played an important role. Thus, for instance, President William Mc Kinley in his State of the War Address to Congress on April 11th 1889 justified America's intervention in Cuba by saying that it was a matter of humanity to put an end of the violation of human rights, the misery and starvation of the Cuban people.

The warnings of the founding fathers, not to get entangled in the conflicts abroad were forgotten, the U.S.A. began to missonize the world, a moral imperialism was born. Even when America was clearly working and fighting in the interest of the nation, it used an idealistic language to justify it at home and abroad. And most of the time it was a mixture of both motives which led America to intervention outside its own soil.

This is also true when we take a look on President Woodrow Wilson, who is most closely associated with the concept of modern American idealism. Wilson justified America's entry into the First World War by pointing to the need „to make the world safe for democracy". For him it was a holy war. The war was clearly also in the interest of the United States; it paved the way to its leadership role in the world - both politically and economically. But his motives were idealistic. In his famous Forteen Points Speach to Congress in January 1918 he called for an end of the old balance of power system in international politics in favour of a new collective security system grounded in the League of Nations. His rhetoric called the war a crusade to win over evil. In 1919 he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Obviously in Oslo they like U.S.-Presidents with an idealistic agenda.

Another man would have deserved the peace prize as well: Franklin D. Roosevelt. In the early 1940's he terminated America's policy of neutrality in his speech on the "Four Freedoms" for which it was worth fighting against the Hitler Regime. He said: "Freedom means the supremacy of human rights... Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights and keep them" And during the Cold War it was the declared aim of America's foreign policy - the heart of the Truemean-doctrine - to protect the free and independent nations from incursions by totalitarian regimes. John F. Kennedy told the world that "we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship... to assure the survival and success of liberty."

Realpolitik under Kissinger

Then came the Vietnam War, marking the climax and, at the same time, the tragic failure of America's global containment policy. The attempt to defend democratic values and freedoms against communist aggression had led to a bloody war in the course of which the U.S.A. itself evidently violated the very values for which it believed itself to be fighting.

There was thus a growing clamour for reorientation. With the "Vietnam shock" as a backdrop, President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger introduced a novelty in the history of America's foreign policy: Starting from 1969, the idealistic missionising concept faded almost entirely into the background. The new maxims were realpolitik, "stability" and "balance". Washington's foreign policy was largely de-ideologised. Kissinger expressed this as follows: "But ... imperatives impose limits on our ability to produce internal changes in foreign countries. Consciousness of our limits is recognition of the necessity of peace."

Kissinger himself was influenced alot by his academic studies of Metternich and Castlereagh, which he had published in his early book „A World Restored". He admired the modest and rational European concepts of foreign policy.

But, as Stanley Hoffmann stated, Kissinger's balance of power policy did not balance at home. Starting from 1973, Kissinger was faced with growing public criticism of his realpolitik. The public deplored a "moral vacuum" in the centre of Washington's foreign policy. Many citizens regarded the Republican Administration as incapable of overcoming America's international humiliation as the result of the Vietnam War, the Watergate affair and disclosures about the CIA's involvement in covert operations abroad. The impression was that the administration's actions were motivated only by considerations of power and self-serving interests. The public lamented the lack of idealtistic principles that would have restored the self-respect and moral authority of the United States. The backlash from Vietnam, Watergate and realpolitik made the nation long for a loral foundation of America's foreign policy. Kissinger's foreign policy concept proved unviable in terms of domestic policy.

The changed mood was first reflected in Congress which held numerous hearings on the human rights situation in the world. In 1973, it began making development and military aid contingent on the observation of human rights in the recipient countries. Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Angola and Ethiopia and others were faced with considerable cutbacks in aid.

But this human rights policy was not restricted to the Third World. The 1973/74 Jackson-Vanik Amendment made the Soviet Union's most favoured nation status contingent on Moscow's undertaking to permit more Jews to emigrate. Eventually this led to the abrogation by Moscow of its trade agreement with the U.S.A., dealing a considerable blow to Kissinger's détente policy.

In November 1976, the American people elected Jimmy Carter as their new president. His background and, above all, his religious upbringing seemed to predestine him as the man to seize upon the human rights issue. One might regret the end of Kissinger's realpolitik, but it had been sapped of strength because - in the eyes of many Americans - it had lost its legitimacy. Though the Americans had for a while permitted themselves to become bewitched by "Metternissinger's virtuosity", Gordon Craig wrote, they soon rediscovered their traditional suspicion of realpolitik and the endless juggling with balance of power weights.

Carters Human Rights Campaign

In his Inaugural address on January 20th 1977, Jimmy Carter said: "Because we are free we can never be indifferent to the fate of freedom elsewhere. Our moral sense dictates a clear-cut preference for those societies which share with us an abiding respect for individual human rights". Carter believed that an active human rights policy would restore his country's self-respect, belief in progress and a long-term aim in keeping with American tradition, making for a national consensus on U.S. foreign policy. Credibility abroad and confidence at home were to be restored by reverting to the basic tenets of the American Revolution. Under Kissinger, stability, status quo, balance, power politics, interest and security had become key terms of foreign policy. Now, Washington spoke of liberty, justice, morality, the American Dream, the spiritual strength of the nation and the nobility of ideas. America's idealism of old had returned to the White House.

True to his words, Carter's term of office began with a veritable firework of public declarations and actions against human rights violations world-wide. Six days after his inauguration, the State Department protested publicly againgt the persecution ot the Charter 77 human rights group in Czechoslovakia, a group of intellectuals, which demanded compliance with "basket three" of the Helsinki final act. One day later the State Department published a second declaration, in which Washington openly took the side of a Soviet dissident: "All attempts on the part of Soviet authorities to intimidate Mr. Sakharov will not silence legitimate criticism within the Soviet Union and stand in contradiction to internationally recognized norms of behaviour."

A short time later in Moscow, Andrei Sakharov published a letter from President Carter which contained a promise of future efforts toward the release of political prisoners: "Human rights," wrote Carter, "are a central concern of my administration." Henceforth the entire world showed intense interest in the fate of Mr Sakharov and his colleagues.

Even this, however, was not enough. Washington supported other dissidents as well, and began to lodge complaints with the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva. On March 1st, 1977, Carter met with exiled Russian Vladimir Bukowski in the White House. Gerald Ford, president under Kissinger, had refused to meet with Alexander Solschenitsyn.

The Carter-Administration even went further: It began to criticise the human rights record, not only of communist countries but also of old and reliable allies such as Iran, the Philippines or Nicaragua. Lyndon B. Johnson's famous word: „They are bastards, but they are our bastards", obviously had lost ground: for Carter, at least at the beginning of his term - bastard was bastard. It did not matter, if the bastard was an ally of the U.S. in the struggle of the cold war.

But he soon came under attack. Helmut Schmidt and Valerie Giscard d'Estaing attacked Carter because his human rights campaign would imperil detente policy with the Soviet Union, especially the SALTII-agreement on the limitation of strategic nuclear missiles that Kissinger had negotiated with the Russians and which now was to be signed and ratified. The Europeans felt that Carter had violated the "code of detente". Carter fought back: his human rights policy Vis a Vis Moscow only corrected an existing asymmetry. While, in the first half of the 70's, the Soviets had -detente not withstanding- continued with ideological competition, the West under the leadership of Kissinger and the Europeans thought the ideological conflict was incompatible with reconciliation and cooperation. So the Carter-Administration believed that it only was revising the unilateral ideological disarmament of its predecessors. Carter's policy was a reminder that detente was not to acknowledge the status-quo but had originally been a dynamic process with the long-term objective of bringing about peaceful change leading to freedom in Eastern Europe.

Another attack against Carter was launched against his policy to bind American aid to the human rights record in the receiving country. This in some instances destabilized old alliances, i.e. in the case of the Philippines, where Carter stopped aid for the Marcos-regime, which fought back by threatening to close two large American sea-bases. Roughly 30 countries were punished for human rights violations during Carter's term, including Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Indonesia or South Korea. Brazil cancelled as a direct response to U.S.-cuts in military aid a long-standing mutual assistance treaty with Washington. Was this and Carter's ongoing criticism against the Shah of Iran or the Paraguay of Alfredo Streossner not in reality undermining U.S.-interests by weakening friendly governments as Jeanne Kirkpatrick argued in her famous commentary on "dictatorship and double standards" in November 1979?

But again Carter retaliated: It was not naiveté that he attacked dictatorships in the American backyard. In opposite: by diminishing the identification with dictatorships he believed to win the hearts of the people and in the long run reliable friends. He believed that active human rights policies would prevent weak dictatorships from being turned by radical forces into communist regimes. To his critics he explained that his human rights policy was a kind of preventive diplomacy to loose countries to Moscow's influence. And he deeply believed that he would serve the U.S. national interest by his human rights policy. In his farewell speech in January 1981 he said: „Our common vision of a free and just society is our greatest source of cohesion at home and strength abroad, greater than the bounty of our material blessings."- And Claudio Orrega, a leading Christian Democrat from Chile, confirmed in the same month: "Never again has such a widespread feeling of friendship and warmth been felt towards the United States throughout the whole continent."

Ronald Reagan - Idealistic Anti-Communism

Ronald Reagan came to power with the promise to make America strong and respected again. He began a huge arms build-up and even dreamt of winning the Cold War by his star war initiative. But was it Realpolitik that motivated him? By no means. He also was a true idealist. The Soviet Union for him was simply the „Empire of Evil", Americans are the good guys, who had to fix things and turn the world to the better. That was not rhetoric, Reagan really believed in his mission. Wyatt Earp in the O.K. Corral! The great and everything overriding threat for him was the expansion of totalitarianism. So the human rights cause would best be served by containing the spread of communism. For that aim from time to time it could become necessary to support authoritarian regimes, if they were under attack by leftist forces. It could become inevitable to support the „lesser evil" as his Secretary of State, Alexander Haig declared in a fundamental foreign policy address on March 31st 1981. That was the resurrection of the Truman-doctrine, which had coined Americas post war-policies. Combating the main enemy of human rights: the Communists - that was Reagan's human rights policy. When allied countries engaged in human rights violations, Reagan did not criticize them publically but engaged in "quiet diplomacy". Was that a backing away from American principles or did it not help in concrete single cases?

There was no return to his fellow republicans Nixon, Ford, Kissinger what so ever. It was deep idealism, which characterized the political line of Ronald Reagan: an idealistic anticommunism. In a speech in April 1984, Reagan expressly avowed America's „idealism": „All American share two great goals for foreign policy: a safer world and a world in which individual rights can be respected and precious values may flourish. As faithful friends of democracy, Americans should go ahead in the firm conviction that the tide of the future is a freedom tide." - That was Woodrow Wilsons and Jimmy Carters rhetoric, embedded in deep anticommunism and formulated from a position of military and economic strength.

In his second term in the White House Reagan's policies obviously paid off: the Soviets came back to the negotiation table, new disarmament agreements were signed and a new era of detente began. The combination of strength and idealism, the dedication to change - as expressed by his "Mr. Gorbatchev, tear down this wall" did flat and pave the way for European revolution.

Bush and Clinton - Realistic Idealism

President George Bush sen., who had been Vice President under Reagan, was more a Kissinger realist, experienced in international politics and in the business world. His presidency witnessed the fall of the wall and influenced largely the 2 plus 4 process which led to German unification. I first met him in 1978 in Houston, when he - a former ambassador to China and a former CIA-director prepared himself to run for president. The second time I was present in a meeting between him and the German President Richard von Weizsäcker, to whom I served at that time as a press secretary. That was in the U.S.-embassy in Tokyo following the funeral of the Japanese Emperor in February 1989. Both meetings were very impressive. President Bush senior was a skilled manager of foreign policy. He was not looking for adventures, but when Iraq occupied Kuwait in 1990 he ordered American soldiers to combat Saddam Hussein. Was it American interest (oil), which was the driving force for its engagement in the first Gulf War or the noble idea to help a small nation against a brutal neighbour? Probably a mixture of both. In any case the rhetoric to explain U.S.-military intervention was again highly moralistic and so was the language after Bush had won the war: "let us create a new world order, in which freedom and human rights are upheld", he heralded proudly. The Soviet Union did not exist any more, the cold war was won: for some it was the „end of history" with only one remaining super-power, which -of course- from time to time had to fix things in various parts of the world.

Also the successor of Bush, Bill Clinton, defined his foreign policy along this line of an idealism embedded in realism. He also advocated a strong America, engaged America in a far away war in Kosovo (no oil!), which he - like the European leaders - explained with the necessity to stop the atrocities of the Serbian nationalists. Clinton believed that "democracies don't attack each other" as he stated in his State of the Union Address to Congress in 1994. So fostering human rights abroad would serve the goal of enhancing security.

Both George Bush sen. and Bill Clinton adhered to an idealistic language, but it was not the preaching, not the "good vs. evil"-manichaeic wording of the predecessors. Both Presidents closely consulted U.S.- allies (Bush talked to Helmut Kohl as of "partners in leadership"), worked in multilateral bodies and signed international treaties like the nuclear test ban treaty or the Kyoto protocol. But both also used force when necessary. Apart from the wars against Iraq and Serbia, Clinton f. e. ordered missile strikes against Islamists after those had attacked the USS Cole in the port of Aden in 2000 and two American embassies in Darussalam and Nairobi in 1998.

George W. Bush- The Failed Crusade

Nobody knows how the Presidency of George W. Bush would have turned out, if the 9/11 attacks would not have taken place. As a matter of fact, most European observers feared at the beginning of his turn that he would disengage from world affairs, concentrate on his domestic agenda and become a champion of a new isolationism. But after the shock of 9/11 he became a crusader. A new good vs. evil rhetoric was born, this time the enemy was not Communism but radical Islamism. While Bush made clear from the outset that he differentiated between Islam as a great world religion on the one hand and islamistic terrorists on the other hand, he embarked on two wars: Afghanistan and Iraq.

While the war against Taliban-Afghanistan was widely supported and legitimized by the United Nations this was far less so in the case of Iraq. Bush became more and more controversial. He changed the motives for his war: at the beginning it was the security of the American people that had to be defended against alleged weapons of mass destruction, later -when they were not found- Bush's speeches centred more about defeating an evil dictator and bring freedom to the Greater Middle East. But he once more could convince the American public. In 2005, in his second Inaugural Address, Bush senior stated: „America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one. So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world"

But he had won the election in the U.S., but abroad only few believed him. The Operation Iraqi Liberation to many simply spelled OIL. Bush came from Houston, he and his family were deeply embedded in the oil-business, which is so powerful in America. And similarly people mistrusted his outspoken Christian language of Bush junior, who certainly was a champion of Christian fundamentalists within the U.S.A.. Bush's struggle for freedom in Arabic countries was to many just an artificial campaign to justify the military engagement of the U.S.A. in Iraq. It was not credible and even when Bush used reasonable arguments, most people in Europe and later also in the U.S.A. simply did not listen anymore. The Bush administration offended allies, refused to ratify the Kyoto protocol against climate change and the agreement on the International Court of Justice.

The Bush-people mistrusted international law and institutions. One of his top aides, the former head of the CIA, Robert J. Woolsey, told me: "You Europeans should understand: The world is a shingle. And as long as this is regrettably the case we want to be the strongest gorilla around."

He and his friends deeply believed that they would make the world better by fighting Islamic Totalitarianism; they argued that the Europeans underestimated the danger and that they had embarked once again on an appeasement policy of the Chamberlain type. Especially the French and the Germans were heavily criticized for having lost contact with reality. The Americans, as Robert Kagan wrote were closer to Mars, while the Europeans were bewitched by Venus, thinking that a good-will appeal to the UN could change the intentions of dictators and terrorists. There was probably much truth in those arguments. But many Europeans felt, that the legitimate goal to defend America and to bring more freedom to the Middle East had been lost in a power struggle over energy that meanwhile compromised the good intentions. Many did not even believe in good intentions anymore.

With Guantanamo and Abu Ghreib the U.S. even lost its most important advantage: to be the City upon the Hill, the beacon of freedom by the example it gives to the world by serving best the cause of human rights at home. In the Muslim countries, even there, were America had strong friends, he was regarded as a Crusader - an ideologue, Christian fundamentalist, who wanted to mission the Muslim world by the use of force.

In the process of rising criticism towards George W. Bush many people forgot that Bush junior had only responded to the 9/11 mass murder, which had been the most fundamental attack against the U.S. since the days of Pearl Harbour. Many had forgotten that it was Al Qaida, which had declared war not only against the U.S. but against the western civilization. It was forgotten that the Taliban-regime and the tyranny of Saddam Hussein had been real - as were the training- camps for Terrorists in the region. At the end of his term people were yearning for dissociation with war atrocities. They were yearning for a new beginning, for an America in clear accordance with the values of the founding fathers.

Obama -On the right track to Balance Idealism with Realism?

They were yearning for someone like Barack Obama. Veni, Vidi, Vici - he came, saw and won first the presidential election and nine months after his inauguration the Nobel Peace Prize. While there are some signs that Obamas popularity in the U.S.A. is already in decline, Europe witnesses for the time being a real Obama bounce, as the German Marshall Fund of the United States recently found out in a continent wide poll. Ronald Asmus states: „The most Obama-crazed country is Germany, where his popularity is some 80 percentage points higher than the level of support Mr. Bush enjoyed in 2008." - Everywhere in the world a lot of expectations were laid upon him, people believe that he can make the world a better place. Yes, we can! His talk is about freedom, respect for other cultures, dialogue, diplomacy, international law, the fight against climate change and hunger, about consultation, nuclear free world, disarmament and peace for all. That is at least the perception that makes him popular and that begins to restore confidence in America.

But is he really a new Wilsonianist, idealistic and pacifistic, who offers his relaxed fist to everybody? Or is it necessary to take a deeper look to his words and deads? A few examples:

Afghanistan: There are more U.S.-soldiers in Afghanistan today than under George W Bush. The Obama-administration continuously bombs alleged bases of Taliban in Pakistan - with more casualties than before.

Iran: Obama repeats that he wants a negotiated solution of the nuclear issue, but he also makes clear that this offer will not stay forever. With him all options, including military means, remain on the table.

Human Rights: The issue plays almost no role in the relationship with Russia and China. His foreign secretary travels to China and makes business. Obama refuses to meet with the Dalai Lama. Angela Merkel did not. Obama presses the reset button with Moscow, stops plans for a comprehensive missile defence in Poland and the Czech Republic and does not confront the Russians f.e. with the case of Chodorkowski. Angela Merkel has good relations with Vladimir Putin too, but she meet with the Human rights activists of Memorial shortly after her first encounter with Putin. Obama also was reluctant to criticize the crack-down on the demonstrators by the Mullah-regime in Teheran. There were good reasons for that move, no doubt - but it frustrated the world's human rights activists and certainly the opposition in Teheran.

Given all this it seems very likely, almost inevitable that he soon will disappoint many people, especially those, who believed and liked his idealistic performance and his peaceful tone - as a (departure) from the dark times of „George W."- As Bush was not the devil as many people believe, Obama is not the Messiah. People only hear what they want to hear.

A little test: Was it Bush or Obama, who said: "As president, my greatest responsibility is to protect the American people. We are in Afghanistan to confront a common enemy that threatens the United States, our friends and allies and the people in Afghanistan and Pakistan. So I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda. "

Was it Bush or Obama, who said: "To ensure prosperity here at home and peace abroad, we all share the belief we have to maintain the strongest military on the planet."

In both cases it was Obama. Most people would attribute this rhetoric to Bush junior. So is Obama cheating? Is he a cynical liar? Is he in reality a hawkish politician, who only is able to hide power- and Realpolitik under the covert of idealistic rhetoric? I do not think so. He and his advisors have just learned important lessons of American idealism in the past, its merits and its misconceptions. He is, more than most people have realized, a statesman, who tries to embed his idealism in a realistic policy. He tries to be a realistic idealist, at least so far... Nevertheless the danger that he will not succeed is very high, because the expectations concerning his presidency do not lie with his realism but with the pure idealism that many people (wrongly) believe he stands for. Imagine at the end of his terms a world that is not nuclear free, where there is not yet a Middle East accord, where peace in Afghanistan has not been possible and the leaders in Iran have refused to make a deal... Or imagine, he would find it necessary to use force...

Given the history of U.S. human rights policies I would like to formulate eleven points, which can serve as a guideline for a human rights policy as an integral part of a foreign policy. I have found during my time as a politician active in foreign affairs that these cornerstones can help in every case to find the right line:

11 Lessons for a Realistic Human Rights Policy

  1. Human Rights should be one cornerstone of a democracies foreign policy. The spread of individual freedom, democracy and justice enhances also the security of free nations. Human rights can only be protected and saveguarded at home, if they are also a serious issue abroad. A democracy, which enjoys rights at home, but does not care about rights abroad, will loose the support of its own people.
  2. Different cultures, historical backgrounds or religious traditions do not allow to apply the concept of a Westminster democracy everywhere at any time. Therefore human rights policies should concentrate on gross violations of rights such as torture. Its aim should be to fight the hell, not to create heaven.
  3. Accordingly not preaching, a „we-know-better"attitude, arrogance or self-righteousness should be avoided. Human rights policy may not come about as moral imperialism.
  4. While free elections in a specific country should be an aim, they are by far not the most important indicator for a free society. More emphasis should be given to the rule of law, the Habeas Corpus principle and of accountability and reliability of the government.
  5. While the concept of human rights is a concept of individual rights vis a vis the government, those rights need social conditions to flourish such as basic standards concerning food, housing, education the rights of women etc.
  6. Human rights can not the only aim of a countries foreign policy, often not even the most important one. It has to be balanced with other aims. So hard compromises are inevitable. You would like to criticise the Chinese human rights record, but on the other hand you need the Chinese as a partner of nuclear non-proliferation policy against Iran. Or: You would like to criticise Russia for closing down a free TV-station, but you want to achieve an important disarmament or climate agreement at the same time. So you have to develop skills and ideas to pursue the one cause without entirely give up the other. There are no clear formulas for a decision; it has to be case-by-case. The criticism of double standards is to a certain extend inevitable.
  7. Sometimes you serve your cause better by quiet diplomacy. There are cases, when a statesman visiting a foreign country has the chance to free imprisoned dissidents or improve their living conditions. Sometimes he/she would harm his cause by speaking out and reaches results by interfering in a way, where the country in question can save its face. But quiet diplomacy should never become an alibi for doing nothing.
  8. Use, wherever possible, multilateral institutions to foster human rights. Strengthen the International Court of Justice, reform the UN-human rights commission, use summits and every possible international forum to work for progress in the field of human rights.
  9. If there is a real humanitarian catastrophy or genocide, do not rule out the use of force - a humanitarian intervention might be necessary. Without the willingness to fight for the idea of freedom, nobody would have stopped Adolf Hitler and Srebrenica would have been repeated. The threshold for such an intervention should be very high and in accordance with international law.
  10. Be on the other hand aware of the limits of your countries power. Henry Kissinger explained his reluctance with aggressive human rights policy not with moral ambiguity or a lack of interest, but: "Imperatives impose limits in our ability to produce internal changes in foreign countries. Consciousness of our limits is recognition of the necessity of peace". (Statement before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 19. 9. 1974)
  11. The best way to serve the cause of human rights is the example a country gives with the practise at home. That has made the United States a beacon of freedom to the world Therefore Guantanamo was a grave mistake and should become history soon. John Quincy Adams stated in his famous address on the tasks of the American nation on July 4th 1821: "Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the contenance of her voice and the benignant sympathy of her example".


* This article was first delivered as as a lecture by the author in King's College in London, before he submitted it for publication at

Dr. Friedbert Pfluerger is a Visiting Professor, Department of War Studies, King's College London
Member International Advisory Board World Security Network Foundation.

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