Democratic Underground

Human Rights and Realpolitik
October 30, 2001
by John Chuckman

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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 with democracy?

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 in Afghanistan.

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 about.