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Tiananmen Square

As the world's only superpower that has openly embraced human rights ideals longer than any Third World, newly industrializing or reforming Communist country, the United States has constantly portrayed itself as the proverbial city on a hill to be emulated by others, especially in the controversial area of human rights. America in many ways has been in a unique position to do so, though the results of the nation’s efforts to advance human rights abroad have been mixed.

The U.S.’s advocacy of human rights has granted the nation a high level of political and moral authority in the international arena. The distinguished American historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. once proclaimed that “the United States was founded on the proclamation of ‘unalienable’ rights, and human rights ever since have had a peculiar resonance in the American tradition.” Indeed, the U.S. commitment to human rights dates from the Declaration of Independence and the foundation of the nation. America has always had a deeply rooted belief in the importance of developing and maintaining democratic governments that are subject to the rule of law, and which respect and protect individual liberties.

Since the end of World War II, the U.S. has been without equal in articulating a vision of international human rights. Whether crafting the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, insisting on including human rights in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, compiling the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices since 1977, or continuing to push for freedoms and rights worldwide, the U.S. has been the single most vocal country in shaping the human rights agenda. Promoting democracy and protecting the individual against the excesses of the state has been official U.S. policy. Washington’s distinctive historical propensity to define its foreign policy interests in idealistic, salvationist terms has been demonstrated most forcefully by President Bush’s second Inaugural Address. Among the advanced industrialized democracies, Japan and Germany have historical records that tend to undermine any leadership role in defense of such values. With “international human rights (being) the world’s first universal ideology,” the U.S. indeed seems to be uniquely qualified to serve as defender of these widely accepted ideals.

America’s vast global strategic resources and international prestige are also key strengths in its push for the advancement of human rights. Since the Carter administration, in which human rights were for the first time openly proclaimed as an integral part of U.S. foreign policy, Washington has constantly used its immense global clout to influence foreign governments in raising human rights standards. The U.S. frequently uses symbolic gestures, such as the holding of public meetings with prominent dissidents, the establishment of various military contacts, and initiation of close and cooperative relationships with human rights nongovernmental organizations. Transfers of advanced technology are made to governments working to improve their records, along with sizable amounts of economic aid. Sanctions have been applied on human rights grounds, which aim to disassociate the U.S. from those governments deemed to have violated American civil rights standards and to gain influence with the more progressive political forces in the countries concerned.

Such factors mean that there is hardly a government that can afford to ignore the issue of human rights once there is active American engagement. U.S. human rights policies have contributed much towards national policy debates and to the development of rights organizations and movements worldwide. At the same time, these policies serve to further enhance American political influence. The collapse of communism stripped away the ideological rationale of U.S. foreign policy, which had relied upon the Marxist system for reflexive self-definition to justify U.S. leadership of the “free world.” Using the ideal of human rights to fill the vacuum in the U.S. ideological arsenal, Washington is able to use the universal principle as a transnational platform to project foreign policy. This approach, together with unique American influence in the human rights field, seems to constitute a “virtuous cycle” to further entrench Washington’s strengths in the international political system.

One must understand that what is preached is not what is necessarily practiced, however. According to Mr. Pat Holt, ex-chief of staff of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the issue of human rights is “possibly the most tangled web in American foreign policy.” Though the U.S. was strongly supportive of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it went to great lengths to emphasize the document’s nonbinding and aspirational character. Fear of international scrutiny of American domestic civil rights practices in the South and elsewhere loomed large in Washington’s calculations. The issue of human rights was downplayed by successive administrations, as American priorities shifted towards the adoption of moralistic anticommunism towards the Soviet empire and Third World countries. This was best demonstrated by the Nixon administration, whose secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, argued that the issue of human rights was an intrusion into the calculus of geo-strategy.

Even Jimmy Carter, the firmest champion of human rights, resisted Congress’s efforts on numerous occasions to place internationally recognized human rights as a relatively distinct issue back on the foreign policy agenda. The president sought to act only where major strategic or economic interests were not at stake, such as in authoritarian Latin American regimes like Uruguay, Nicaragua, Chile and others. Congress, galvanized by executive failures in Vietnam and Watergate, asserted itself on U.S. foreign policy. It forced Carter to support an economic embargo against Uganda, and pressured the president to protect human rights in geopolitically sensitive regions such as the Philippines and South Korea through legal and binding means. The Reagan administration, under the guidance of the Kirkpatrick Doctrine, explicitly advocated preferential treatment for authoritarian allies over communist adversaries. A weakened Congress failed to successfully challenge the human rights policies of the executive office, which forcefully proceeded on the basis of American exceptionalism and Cold War realpolitik. The subsequent Bush and Clinton administrations, which oversaw the disintegration of the Soviet Union, had to contend with the rise of China within the system of the “free world.” As we shall see, human rights would once again be relegated to secondary importance.

All of the above examples serve to illustrate several weaknesses of the U.S.’s role in advancing human rights. The challenges towards effective and consistent U.S. human rights policy formation include the mounting tensions between human rights and commercial as well as security interests, and conflicts within the American political process regarding human rights policymaking. Some theorists have noted that the importance of human rights overrides other policy considerations. This might indeed be true in stable domestic politics, where the central government controls the legitimate use of force and where independent judicial systems serve to assert judgment on conflict of policies and conflict of rights. In the nation-state system, however, national security is naturally the top priority for any rational government. One would be prudent to consider to what extent, and in what ways, human rights considerations can be implemented within security policy. Contemporary U.S. involvement in such issues, at least from the executive perspective, indicates that specific human rights have not been implemented but ignored. At the same time, human rights are high visibility issues that bring political rewards for the legislature, which finds close allies among media and church groups. These usually conflicting tendencies between the American branches of government could send contradictory signals to the international community that would undermine the credibility of America’s commitment to human rights issues. Indeed, there are many other limitations – and opportunities – that the U.S. must face with its leadership in promoting human rights, as we shall see in the case of China.

American strength in human rights has been put to the test with the People’s Republic of China as well. During the Tiananmen crackdown of 1989, which seriously disrupted Sino-American relations in the midst of powerful American democratic and human rights rhetoric, the elder President Bush decided to secretly send Brent Scowcroft, his National Security Advisor, and Lawrence Eagleburger, his Deputy Secretary of State, to assure Beijing that America’s newly imposed economic sanctions were temporary and that bilateral economic ties would not be jeopardized. At the same time, Bush approved the sale of Hughes Aircraft communications satellites to be launched by Chinese rockets, and asked the Export-Import Bank to resume lending to American firms engaged in business with China. In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1992, presidential candidate Bill Clinton denounced the Bush, Sr. administration’s apparent lack of interest in human rights and its intention to conduct “business as usual” with Beijing post-Tiananmen. Clinton promised that he would not “coddle tyrants from Baghdad to Beijing” if elected president, and would critically review China’s most-favored-nation (MFN) status, with a view to attaching tough standards on human rights. Clinton’s proposal stood in marked contrast to the policy of Bush, who favored unconditional support for Beijing’s MFN status. Yet in hindsight, one could see that pronouncements like Clinton’s were more notable for their political effect than for any real impact they had on policy.

Indeed, once Clinton took office, his “New Democrat” administration’s belief in economic liberalism, “enlightened” self-interest, and a renewed trust in multilateral institutions and internationalism drove the U.S. to abandon its initial policy of tying China’s MFN status to progress on human rights. Considerable political clout was wielded by U.S. corporations eager to crack the Chinese market and key economic agencies, such as the Department of the Treasury, the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) and the Commerce Department. The Clinton administration’s policy switched from “linkage” to “comprehensive engagement,” which awkwardly dictated that the White House would unequivocally support the annual renewal of China’s MFN status when it was voted upon by Congress. The unanimous refusal by all of China’s global trading partners from Japan to Australia to link politics with economics undermined America’s effectiveness and credibility in its human rights efforts as well.

In the spring of 1999, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji visited the U.S. and elevated the U.S.-China relationship to a new level, particularly through the negotiations of China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO), which succeeded later that year. George W. Bush initially characterized China as a “strategic competitor,” instead of Clinton’s “strategic partner.” Even so, the Republican president acknowledged that in terms of overall trade policy and supporting China’s WTO candidacy, he was in “complete agreement” with his predecessor’s policies. Though terrorism, post-September 11, 2001, has been a new factor bringing the two nations together, economic relations – which clearly override the human rights agenda – will certainly remain a prominent feature of Sino-American ties. More importantly, China has successfully twisted the rules of the human rights game against the U.S. Beijing, by arguing that human rights should be deferred pending economic development instead of heeding strict American demands for immediate reform, has waged highly effective campaigns to prevent annual U.S.-sponsored resolutions from reaching the floor of the UN Human Rights Commission. In fact, the U.S., which is a founding member of the Commission, was ousted from the group in 2001 because Beijing’s stance resonated with many of the representatives, among other things. The U.S. definition of human rights – which consists of civil and political rights – is much narrower than those of many of its international democratic allies, and it represents a failure by Washington to relate to less affluent, less individualistic societies in the light of American exceptionalism. One must note, however, that the forceful rationalization of human rights by China, as well as by other nations, reflects a universal acceptance of the promotion of human rights as a beneficial force. In the end, this is to the credit of America’s successful global commitment to the human rights cause.

In his farewell address, Carter declared that “America did not invent human rights… Human rights invented America.” Indeed, human rights as a relatively distinct issue is there to stay on the U.S. foreign policy agenda. The Nixon-Kissinger preference for treating human rights as a strictly domestic issue has been repudiated as much by Republicans as by Democrats. The U.S.’s strengths in promoting human rights are quite real and will continue to help shape the global agenda. Washington’s weaknesses, both internal and external, are just as substantial, though. With its current waging of war on terror, the U.S. is showing numerous signs of eroding and violating human rights in Afghanistan, Iraq and within its own borders, as reported by agencies such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. These are extraordinary times that require extraordinary effort by the U.S. to set its own house in order, in response to terrorism and to demands by the community of nations. This must be done if the U.S. is to effectively continue its crusade for human rights in an age of globalization and democratization. Jimmy Carter would surely approve.

Kassian Polin (2005) is a final year student at Brandeis University majoring in International & Global Studies and Economics, and minoring in Social Justice and Social Policy.