Rights and Realpolitik
by John Chuckman
Recent applications of human rights to American foreign policy
have been confusing, perverse, and even destructive. These
results come from our not recognizing the hard nature of sound
foreign policy, its incompatibility with ideological zeal,
and great unsettled issues in our own society.
These observations are made all the more poignant by current
discussions about rebuilding Afghanistan, complete with references
to expanded human rights and democracy, albeit while that
country is bombed in an attempt to destroy its existing government.
Foreign policy is the tough-minded business of negotiating
our way among other nations, optimizing our influence, gaining
acceptance for important goals while neutralizing unfriendly
influences. Its focus is success in economic, political, and
military rivalries. It is intellectually demanding, pragmatic
and best reflects enlightened self-interest.
Fantasy, sentimentality, and missionary regard for others
are as inappropriate and ineffectual as they would be on Wall
Street. Most of history's foreign-policy disasters - as Philip
II of Spain's long and costly efforts to reestablish Catholicism
in Northern Europe - reflect ideology blind to new realities.
Of all nations ever to achieve great power before the United
States, only Great Britain during her decline had pretensions
to democracy. The United States as both world power and a
nation of democratic ideals faces special dilemmas in foreign
policy. How do you balance realpolitik, always ignored at
one's peril, with ideals of human rights? Imperial ambitions
Ideology in foreign policy is not new. It has served both
to mask other motives and in the disastrous pursuit of dreams.
The French, during the most extreme part of their Revolution,
attacked neighboring states, grabbing real estate and booty
in the name of liberty and fraternity. The Germans committing
the bloodiest act in human history, the invasion of Russia,
claimed to defend Western values.
President Jefferson, who had a great distaste for war, tried
using a trade embargo to avoid one with Great Britain. He
succeeded in crippling New England's economy, encouraging
widespread lawbreaking (since compliance was economic suicide
for many), and inspiring a secession movement. A stubborn
Jefferson became ruthless at enforcement, violating most of
the high-sounding principles for which he is known. And the
war he sought to avoid fell to his successor.
America's great moment in world affairs was the immediate
aftermath of World War II. The Marshall Plan and reconstruction
of defeated enemies earned the United States a world reputation
for greatness of spirit, even though these actions also served
our self-interest. Today, we talk more than ever about human
rights and democracy, but, if you follow media outside the
United States, you will sense much concern, doubt, and fear
about our intentions.
The image of a Jimmy-Stewart character, eyes tearing with
sincerity and Adam's apple bobbing, opposing the amoral forces
of traditional foreign policy - exemplified by such masters
as Richelieu, Talleyrand, Metternich, and Bismarck - is an
appealing one. But it is no less fantasy than the political
events in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
Gary Cooper as sheriff in High Noon is probably closer to
the role many Americans believe we now play. The trouble with
this image is that Gary Cooper only killed bad guys (and not
by ambushing them). He sure didn't burn down the whole town
to get what he wanted. Running around the world warning selected
leaders to "straighten up an' fly right, or else we're a goin'
ta bomb ya," is not foreign policy. The results can be utterly
chaotic as they are in Kosovo and almost certainly will prove
It's not particularly moral either. When you kill others
with little or no risk to yourself, it corrupts judgment and
diminishes an appropriate sense of sacrifice and responsibility
for what you are doing. Since ancient times, the kind of warrior
that killed without exposing himself has been held in contempt.
Evangelism, too, is a poor model for foreign policy. Our
public pronouncements concerning China in recent years chiefly
proclaim her sins. Considering how far China has come since
the nightmare of the Cultural Revolution, this seems downright
quirky. One suspects a certain amount of cynicism and hypocrisy
at work here. We hear very little about dissidents in the
world's many nasty places that we regard as loyal friends
or vital to our interests. And the level of our concern about
China seems to grow with the size of her trade surplus. Should
human rights concerns be used as sticks to beat out trade
concessions? Does that enhance our prestige and influence?
When we preach about democracy, we ignore the fact that modern,
stable democracy is related to the economic growth of a strong
middle class. It is the gradual emergence of a large group
of people with a stake in society that makes decisions by
the privileged less and less acceptable in any society. Democracy
grows out of real economic change.
Our history shows this. Despite revolutionary rhetoric of
"no taxation without representation," there was poor representation
in pre-revolutionary assemblies although Britain had granted
considerable autonomy in local affairs. And this did not improve
quickly after the Revolution. Virginia, for example, was run
as a planter aristocracy with perhaps as little as one percent
of the population able to vote. It is a legitimate question
whether China's Communist Party is any less representative
than the Virginia planters who jealously guarded their power
against smallholders and frontiersmen.
Today, despite much progress, money undermines our elections,
gerrymandering makes fixtures of incumbents, two parties are
granted almost a monopoly, our powerful Senate retains many
undemocratic aspects, and voters refuse to vote. If this is
where we are after four centuries of development, how reasonable
is it to expect China to leap into democracy? Yes, democracy
exists in a few poor countries, and authoritarian government
has existed in more advanced ones, but these generally are
not stable environments in the long term.
China is still very poor and cannot become a modern nation
soon. But it is growing rapidly, the Communist party has stopped
micro-managing economics and politics, and there are promising
democratic institutions at the local level. These developments
should be praised, assisted and encouraged, rather than our
publicly blaming China for what she has not yet achieved.
In no underdeveloped place do human rights mean the same
thing as in the advanced world. Our Old Testament and Greek
myths tell us of human sacrifice and other grisly deeds. In
many parts of the world, life hasn't changed much in the three
thousand years since those passages were written.
The growth of human-rights concepts parallels economic and
social development. Our nation, despite the fine words of
founding documents, accepted for much of its history that
you could treat some human beings virtually as livestock.
Even with growth and change, pockets of backwardness persisted
where lynching was common and accepted.
The most powerful influence we can exert for human rights
is through example. In foreign affairs, just as in ordinary
life, talk is cheap. We wag our fingers about Tiananmen Square
without seeming to grasp that others see the brutal police
work at Waco being just as deplorable. Amnesty International,
a much respected organization and winner of the Nobel prize
for peace, recently cited the United States for serious and
extensive human-rights abuses by police.
One can only imagine the utterly unproductive indignation
and insult generated when leaders of ancient societies are
given sermons by Americans who often do not know their own
history. Such moments are simply not what foreign policy is