Foreign Policy and America’s Global Role

RenouardToday we have a guest post from Joe Renouard, who teaches history at The Citadel and at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in Nanjing, China. His book, Human Rights in American Foreign Policy: From the 1960s to the Soviet Collapse, explores America's international human rights policies from the Vietnam War era to the end of the Cold War. Global in scope and ambitious in scale, this book examines American responses to a broad array of human rights violations: torture and political imprisonment in South America; apartheid in South Africa; state violence in China; civil wars in Central America; persecution of Jews in the Soviet Union; movements for democracy and civil liberties in East Asia and Eastern Europe; and revolutionary political transitions in Iran, Nicaragua, and the collapsing USSR. Renouard challenges the characterization of American human rights policymaking as one of inaction, hypocrisy, and double standards. Arguing that a consistent standard is impractical, he explores how policymakers and citizens have weighed the narrow pursuit of traditional national interests with the desire to promote human rights.

In international relations, human rights issues perpetually highlight the tension between national interests, idealism, and humanitarianism. For half a century now, the United States government has labored to find an appropriate response to each new human rights crisis, balancing national and global interests with domestic political needs and humanitarian impulses.

Even a cursory glance at the day’s news reveals the extent of violations in the world today. These include civil wars and refugee crises in Africa and the Middle East; the Syrian government’s use of torture, extrajudicial executions, and incendiary weapons; the murderous actions of the Islamic State; the use of child soldiers in South Sudan; the incarceration of journalists in Egypt and Turkey; sexual violence in the Central African Republic; and, in the words of a recent U.N. resolution, the “long-standing and ongoing systematic, widespread and gross violations of human rights” in North Korea. 

In light of these tragedies, American policymakers face a set of tough questions: Should they stand up for liberal, democratic principles and human rights everywhere? Or should they follow a more pragmatic course in pursuit of a narrow set of national interests? Does superpower status oblige the U.S. to promote human rights around the world? Should America simply lead by example rather than “meddling” in other nations’ affairs? Do moral concerns even belong in foreign policy? How policymakers have answered these questions is the subject of Human Rights in American Foreign Policy: From the 1960s to the Soviet Collapse.

The book explains the emergence and institutionalization of human rights in American foreign policy between the Vietnam War era and the Cold War’s end. The modern international movement rose from the ashes of the Second World War, but for two decades the U.S. government was only a minor participant. It was in the quarter century between the late 1960s and the 1990s that presidents, legislators, foreign-service officers, and bureaucrats embarked upon a sustained, though hardly consistent, campaign to address abuses in dozens of countries.

Human Rights in American Foreign Policy takes a very broad approach to the subject, examining American responses to torture and political imprisonment in South America; apartheid in South Africa; state violence in China; civil wars in Central America; persecution of Jews in the Soviet Union; movements for democracy and civil liberties in East Asia and Eastern Europe; and revolutionary political transitions in Iran, Nicaragua, and the collapsing USSR.

This project grew out of my interest in foreign policy, the Vietnam-era breakdown of the containment doctrine, and policymakers’ attempts to make “human rights” a viable substitute for simple anticommunism. The more deeply I delved into the literature and archival sources, the more I came to believe that although Washington’s human rights efforts were noteworthy, they were not quite revolutionary. When we consider American foreign relations in toto, traditional interests like security, trade, international stability, and strong bilateral relationships took precedent over international human rights concerns. National security always trumped human rights, and policymakers were reluctant to hinder commerce. Likewise, those nations that fell outside of America’s primary economic sphere were seldom a part of human rights debates in Washington. Nevertheless, some American policies got clear results. Washington’s intercession led some governments to curb abuses, free political prisoners, and even speed democratic transitions.

I highlight four key features of the era. First, American human rights politics were deeply embedded in Cold War ideological divisions and domestic political conflicts. These divides were reflected in the selectivity of policies and rhetoric, especially conservatives’ tendency to condemn left-wing governments in Eastern Europe and liberals’ tendency to target right-wing governments in Latin America. (Cuba, South Africa, Pinochet-era Chile, and post-revolutionary Nicaragua were especially notable battlegrounds.) Second, this story is defined by a high degree of politicization, and even opportunism. Every part of the policymaking process was politicized, from congressional hearings and foreign aid debates to democracy promotion initiatives and visits of foreign dissidents. Irrespective of politicians’ true feelings (and many were surely motivated, at least in part, by genuine humanitarian concern), “human rights” was a useful oppositional strategy.

Third, in light of the mixed motives behind American policies and rhetoric, as well as these policies’ varied outcomes, human rights activity in Washington cannot be explained by any single analytical model—not realism, idealism, paternalism, neo-imperialism, or otherwise. There were simply too many unique cases worldwide and too many interests driving American involvement. Some human rights actions were aimed at alleviating suffering, while others were outward projections of U.S. power, interests, or domestic anxieties. Fourth, inconsistency was central to human rights policymaking and enforcement. The U.S. government’s inability to create a strong, consistent set of policies that applied equally to all nations was a natural outcome of the fractiousness of politics and the sheer variety of interests competing for attention in Washington.

At the center of all this was the debate over the national interest. While activists argued that human rights promotion was in America’s interest, conservative cold warriors and advocates of traditional diplomacy asserted that the U.S. should support any stable, anticommunist government. In their eyes, cutting military aid and arms sales destabilized allies, hurt American businesses, and decreased Washington’s leverage but did not prevent regimes from obtaining aid and weapons elsewhere. In response to these criticisms, activists offered an alternative vision of the national interest—one that included the well-being of other states’ citizens. Some argued that liberal democracies made better, more stable allies. Others claimed that ties to oppressive governments hurt America’s reputation and even spurred foreign policy setbacks, as when revolutionaries overthrew U.S.-backed regimes in Iran and Nicaragua. Most activists, though, justified their vision by pointing to humanism and the American liberal tradition. The U.S., they argued, should pursue human rights because this was the right thing to do and because these were consistent with the nation’s founding principles.

Some activists argued that America was duty-bound to act because it was a powerful nation that could use its vast economic resources, diplomatic leverage, and even the threat of military force to change other governments’ behavior. But as policymakers would discover time and again, there were limits to American power, and policymakers were rarely able to convince other governments—or other U.S. government agencies, for that matter—to do exactly what they wanted.

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Captions and credits:

1: Brazilian President Emílio Garrastazu Médici and President Richard M. Nixon deliver joint remarks in the White House on December 7, 1971. Despite some misgivings in Washington over the Brazilian regime’s tactics, the two leaders found common cause in curbing leftist activity in the Western hemisphere. Photo courtesy Richard Nixon Presidential Library.

2: Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Senator Henry M. Jackson (D-WA) speaking in the U.S. Senate Building in Washington, D.C., in July 1975. Eastern Bloc dissidents were not only internationally recognized symbols of human courage, but they also became political pawns in the United States. Photo courtesy University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, UW27848z.

3: President Gerald R. Ford signs the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki, Finland, August 1, 1975).  The human rights provisions of the Helsinki Accords would have far-reaching consequences for the nations of Eastern and Central Europe. Photo courtesy Gerald R. Ford Library.

4: The Shah of Iran wipes away tears during a state visit to Washington, D.C., while President Jimmy Carter, Empress Farah, and Rosalyn Carter look on (November 15, 1977). The clamor of a nearby riot, and the tear gas used to quell it, were harbingers of the difficult years to come in the U.S.-Iran relationship. Photo courtesy Jimmy Carter Library.

5: President Reagan toasts with Korean President Chun Doo-hwan during a reception in Seoul, South Korea (November 13, 1983). Reagan supported strong security ties between the two nations, but also publicly touted enhanced civil liberties and democratic evolution during his visit to Seoul. Photo courtesy Ronald Reagan Library.

6: President Ronald Reagan with President of the Philippines Ferdinand Marcos and his wife, Imelda, during a September 1982 state visit to Washington. By Reagan’s second term, American concerns about the lack of democracy in the Philippines would dominate the two nations’ longstanding relationship. Photo courtesy Ronald Reagan Library.

7: President George H.W. Bush waves to the crowd during a visit to Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, on February 25, 1989. Student demonstrations would break out in the square only two months later, and these in turn would precipitate the violent crackdown of June 1989 – an event which tested the strength of the Sino-American relationship. Photo courtesy George Bush Presidential Library.

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