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The Road to Smart Power in the Middle East

Promoting Human Rights Abroad, Defending Them at Home

by Russell Berman

An American foreign policy that includes the promotion of human rights as one of its missions can draw on a tradition rooted in the Declaration of Independence. The assertion of universal equality and the designation of unalienable rights, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” have shaped American political culture. That the reality of American life has never fully realized these ideals and at times failed them egregiously, notably in the institution of slavery, does not negate the validity of the ideals themselves.

For the country’s first century and a half, it was not a major actor in international affairs, and there was therefore little room for a foreign policy involving rights promotion abroad. One exception that deserves mentioning is the role that the U.S. Navy played in suppressing the Atlantic slave trade decades before the domestic abolition of slavery. Yet it was only in the wake of the First World War that the U.S. gained the foreign policy clout to begin to project its ideals globally, notably in Wilsonian democracy promotion and later in the terms of the Atlantic Alliance during the Second World War. Those agendas, reflecting political visions of presidents Wilson and Roosevelt, eventually took more formal shape in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights followed, coming into force in 1976. Still, it was not until the Carter administration that human rights became a key watchword of American foreign policy, amplified during the Reagan presidency with its vocal condemnation of rights violations in the Soviet Union.

A foreign policy around rights advocacy necessarily generates certain structural challenges. First, in a world of competition and conflict, where alliances are necessary, the allies available do not necessarily share all our values. The obvious example is America's wartime alliance with Stalinist Russia in order to defeat Nazi Germany. One could also point to the tolerance for dictatorships during the Cold War, as part of the global struggle against Communism: Salazar's Portugal, the Greek junta, martial law on Taiwan under Chiang Kai-shek. In such cases, the battle for freedom seemed to require collaboration with unfree regimes in order to defeat a greater threat.

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