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America Must Rediscover Human-Rights Realism

Because gross violations of human rights are central to governance in China and Russia, the United States should recognize that its own commitment to internationally accepted norms is a key source of strength. As the history of the Cold War shows, a US foreign policy that advances such principles is far more likely to attract allies.
Protestors with placards reading ‘Support the president’s position on human and national rights’ and ‘Human rights for all captive nations in the USSR’ during a demonstration raising awareness of the Soviet Union’s human rights record, on United Nations Plaza near the United Nations building in New York City, New York, 4th October 1977. The protest coincided with President Carter holding disarmament talks with the Soviet Union at the UN. (Photo by Peter Keegan/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

It is neither an accident nor a coincidence that China is committing what many call genocide against Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang, and that Russia has jailed the dissident Alexei Navalny. The Chinese need a quiescent Xinjiang because it is a key node of their Eurasia-spanning Belt and Road Initiative. The Kremlin needs government institutions to serve as a cover for wealth accumulation by a gangster elite, and thus sees Navalny as a major threat.

Both countries are in the grip of nervous autocratic systems that cannot afford to offer second chances to anyone. In carrying out their recent abuses, both have implicitly made certain calculations of how the United States and its allies will – or will not – respond.

In twenty-first-century great power politics, a robust human-rights policy is a vital form of leverage, because gross violations of internationally accepted norms are central to governance by autocratic regimes. As such, the US must not throw away the strategic advantage conferred by its longstanding commitment to human rights.

Foreign policy reflects a hierarchy of needs. For the US, the question is not whether human rights should be dominant or absent in foreign-policy decisions; it is what rank they should hold in crafting a response to a given situation.

A foreign policy dominated completely by human rights would be unsustainable, forcing the US to abandon core national interests – such as keeping the peace with other nuclear powers – and dragging senior policymakers into one humanitarian crisis after another. A policy that virtually ignored human rights, however, would reduce the US to the one-dimensional realpolitik that characterizes Chinese and Russian behavior. A concern for human rights is what differentiates the US from others as a great power.

This difference is all the more important at a time when many US allies will soon list China as their biggest trading partner. As China’s economic clout grows, an America that cannot appeal to its allies’ core values will soon find itself at a distinct disadvantage. True, Asians and Europeans talk a good game on human rights while practicing a ruthless realpolitik themselves; but the fact that they recognize the need to talk that game speaks not only to how they want to be viewed, but how they want to view themselves.

The US can exploit these sources of national identity. It can become the aspirational great power that small- and medium-size powers would prefer to align with. But it cannot do this without placing some emphasis on human rights.

America’s use of human rights as a foreign-policy tool emerged in full from the carnage of World War II, and then got a booster shot from the decisive conclusion of the Cold War, when Western democracies triumphed over the repressive Soviet empire. During the Cold War years, human rights were an integral part of a foreign policy that combined realism and internationalism.

That’s right, realism was suffused with both internationalism and concern for human rights. The US played hard-nosed realpolitik at the same time that it was championing the Helsinki process to support dissidents in the Soviet bloc. This was especially true in the Reagan era, when the Department of State under Secretary of State George Shultz was brimming with wise area specialists and a few neoconservatives in key bureaus.

Following the Cold War and the ill-fated US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, American realism lost its internationalist character and morphed into neo-isolationism. The earlier emphasis on promoting human rights was sharply reduced, and the human-rights agenda was transformed into a narrow ideology by some foreign-policy and journalistic elites who had long obsessed over humanitarian issues almost to the exclusion of national interests.

This divide has mirrored the deeper partisan polarization in the country: Republicans have moved sharply toward retrograde right-wing nationalism, while Democrats have moved sharply toward the progressive, globalist left. Because the political center has been lost, realism and human rights are rarely spoken of in the same breath. But unless US foreign policy reconciles realism and a concern for human rights, America will lack a compelling vision of global leadership that can prevail in the competition with China and Russia.

The US cannot recover the political unity it enjoyed during WWII, the Cold War, and up until the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. Nonetheless, when it comes to foreign policy, US President Joe Biden’s administration will need to forge a compromise between the two extremes of neo-isolationism and rampant globalism. A concern for human rights and how it is applied across different contexts will be perhaps the best barometer of his success.

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