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Given differing U.S. human rights policies for Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen, was Ralph Waldo Emerson correct to say that “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”?
A broad-minded view is that more consistency in promoting human rights would in fact better serve U.S. credibility and national interests. Presidencies past too often sacrificed human rights for other foreign policy objectives. From the Spanish-American War through the Vietnam War, U.S. policy was often a tale of assertive intervention in other lands for strategic interests in the name of “saving” or “civilizing” them.
In the mid-1970s, the United States established a formal “human rights” policy with a dedicated State Department bureau headed by Patricia Derien under President Jimmy Carter. Carter made human rights a central theme, suggesting the United States had an “inordinate fear of Communism,” while exposing abuses by U.S. allies (as he still does). Among other shifts, Carter backed away from a repressive Shah of Iran in large part due to that regime’s human rights abuses.
Equally moralistic in tone, Ronald Reagan began his presidency with the converse tilt. He appointed Jeane Kirkpatrick as ambassador to the United Nations (UN), drawn to her critique of Carter policy in Iran and elsewhere, titled “Dictatorships and Double Standards.” She argued that traditional autocracies were more likely to evolve and liberalize than totalitarian regimes, which seek greater social control. This led her to reject a policy of pressing more strongly for reform in the autocracies, which were often U.S. Cold War allies, than in the totalitarian states. But Reagan ultimately recognized that U.S. interests were bound up in pushing Cold War allies to reform and democratize, from El Salvador and Chile to South Korea, the Philippines, and Taiwan.
The presidential outlier on human rights in the late twentieth century was George H. W. Bush. In Kiev, he cautioned Eastern Europeans against “suicidal nationalism” in seeking independence from Moscow (dubbed the “Chicken Kiev” speech by the late William Safire). He dispatched senior aides to reassure and toast Beijing’s leaders shortly after the Tiananmen Square massacre. After masterfully leading a coalition to end Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait, he resisted militarily ousting Saddam Hussein, even though Saddam had gassed his own Kurdish citizens. One must acknowledge that the intrusive UN sanctions regime put in place instead to constrain Saddam’s power in fact caused humanitarian harm to civilians for twelve years.
President Clinton used institutions effectively to advance human rights. Prioritizing the enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), he accelerated European Union (EU) steps to offer Eastern European countries membership too. That there were human rights standards for joining NATO and the EU created a potent incentive for those countries to improve their records. But like other U.S. presidents, Clinton picked his fights. He flipped his position and delinked trade and human rights with China in his first year, and Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright later observed, “We do not have a cookie-cutter approach to policy” when asked why China and Cuba were treated differently.
The younger President Bush had the most forward-leaning rhetoric on human rights, culminating in his second inaugural address, where he proclaimed “the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” He rejected “the soft bigotry of low expectations” regarding the people of the Middle East allegedly not being suited to exercise full liberties. Yet he too was inconsistent in his actions: he dismayed human rights activists by saying the Beijing Olympics were only about sports, he turned a blind eye to Pakistani generals’ manipulation of the judicial system, he walked back from pressuring Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, and his policies on detaining supposed terrorists undermined U.S. credibility.
The question about the early Obama administration was whether it would be more like that of George H.W. Bush (coldly realist) or Bill Clinton (morally inclined, but picking his battles). Likely alluding foremost to Iran, Obama declared in his January 20, 2009, inaugural address, "To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist." According to the Obama White House, the Arab Spring events led him to shift from this realist policy of engagement to a more morally inclined approach like President Clinton’s.
This seemingly serpentine path on human rights between and within presidencies actually reflects much continuity and convergence. Presidents Carter and Reagan were both moralistic in tone and each pressed allies to reform. President Obama was no more willing or able proactively to shutter the Guantanamo Bay detention facility than his predecessor. All recent presidents have been tough on Myanmar’s leaders and cautious in pressuring China’s.
What kind of consistency would be desirable and achievable? Four precepts would help. First, despite how a human rights emphasis at times clashes with important priorities in bilateral relationships (e.g., trade, counterterrorism, and military bases), it is important not to assume that human rights always intrinsically contradict U.S. interests. For instance, repression of expression and real-time information may only retard economic growth and turn regimes into pressure cookers ready to blow.
Second, it is false to suggest that the greater a country’s relative power, the less the U.S. can afford to confront its human rights failings. Addressing liberties in Russia and China is all the more important due to their geopolitical weight. Indeed, if it is too inflexible in absorbing societal demands, China’s autocracy could face a rupture threatening global stability.
Third, governments that regularly deny a large category of their citizens equal access to justice are not only violating universal rights, but also squandering assets. For example, the United States could advance a quiet, sustained dialogue with India about the national government’s role in transcending cultural practices of discrimination against broad social groups that relegate valuable human capital to squalid lives. Persistent bonded labor of disadvantaged castes despite a 1976 ban and remedy law in India is not unlike segregation persisting in the American South until U.S. national authorities—in another federal system—pushed states to implement laws.
Most of all, countries that deny women and girls property and inheritance rights, free expression, and political participation are forsaking enormous assets for civic conciliation and economic dynamism—which is neither in their interests nor those of the United States.
Fourth, the Middle East should not be seen as an exception. It is a bigotry of low expectations to think Muslims and Arabs are incapable of exercising universal rights. That said, there are those who would use newly won tools of freedom to institutionalize repression (as some elected Islamists might). Without covertly handpicking winners, the United States should offer a range of actors who appear authentically committed to pluralism and peaceful contestation help to develop their capacity to compete for power and to govern.
So where does this leave the United States in specific cases? Take Iran. Its pursuit of a nuclear capability; its regional influence, particularly with respect to Iraq and Afghanistan; and its role in global terrorism are all issues of critical importance to the United States, but they do not call for downplaying human rights. Precisely because Iran is such a heavyweight regional power, human rights are important. The Iranian government’s treatment of women and religious minorities limits them as societal and economic assets. The Green Movement and the teeming vitality of civil society show that Iranians long for fundamental freedoms. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is right to have joined the United Kingdom and Canada in imposing visa restrictions on Iranian officials implicated in rights violations.
Bahrain is a striking case of the appearance of inconsistency by the United States compared to the ultimate U.S. embrace of dissent and change in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Tunisia. A Human Rights Watch report documented Bahrain’s “punitive and vindictive campaign of violent repression” via arbitrary arrests, hidden detention, torture, biased military court trials, and the sacking of protest sympathizers from jobs. The United States stood largely silent as Saudi Arabia supplied forces to help Bahrain put down dissent.
The United States ought to view its important naval base in Bahrain as a reason to discourage repression, which could make that nation less stable. Bahrain limits the freedom of women, foreign workers, and political opposition. The United States is capable of deftly asserting more pressure on this small power to avoid counterproductive suppression of dissent (helped by the Saudis no less), without losing access to a strategic base.
While it is neither wise nor feasible to have identical policies for all nations, more consistency based on these precepts will better serve U.S. and global interests.