Realists, Too, Can Stand for Human Rights

Including human rights among U.S. foreign-policy priorities helps develop broader, more independent relationships.

The current debate over humanitarian intervention has made it difficult to discuss human rights and U.S. foreign policy without stumbling into the editorial crosshairs of “realists.” Ostensibly aiming for champions of “Responsibility to Protect”, or “R2P,” realists have used these pages and those of other prominent publications to simultaneously take broad swipes at human-rights advocates with charges of idealism and sentimentality. They claim that human-rights advocates should “toughen up” and accept the cold reality of interests, and commonly scold human-rights advocates for shamelessly wagging fingers at foreign governments. Steve Clemons instructs his readers that human-rights advocates and interventionists “tend not to think about the head, but rather react rashly and impulsively without thinking through the costs and benefits.”

All of this is very interesting, but at the same time, somewhat surprising to those who work on human rights, who often have U.S. security interests foremost in mind and who rarely, if ever, think about the idea of proposing coercive military intervention in the name of human rights.

Broad-brushing human rights advocates as “moralists,” “idealists,” or “unrealistic,” harmfully ignores the often-overlooked fact that human rights fit comfortably into a realist’s world defined by interests and anarchy.

It is worth recalling that the international human-rights regime started with reciprocal arrangements between sovereign states as means of protecting a state's own people in other countries; a very “realist” concept, indeed. The Geneva Conventions and the Laws of Armed Conflict were not designed as ways to "play nice and lose," as some authors like Walter Russell Mead have suggested, but for sovereign countries to better protect their own civilian populations when at war. Even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the treaties that followed were born out of an interest in preserving security, as Michael Ignatieff described it, “a war weary generation’s reflection on Europe’s nihilism and its consequences.” And in the United States, where our foreign policy invariably returns from its periodic adventures to a more realistic grounding, the challenge of promoting international human rights has never been to make idealism an enduring feature of our policy, but rather to persuasively demonstrate the relationship between human rights and national-security interests. Even Cyrus Vance, explaining the Carter administration’s human-rights policy to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations started a now decades-old tradition of making the case for human rights in security terms: “The advancement of human rights is more than an ideal. It, too, is an interest. Peaceful gains for freedom and also steps toward stability abroad, and greater security for America.”

At times, the human-rights community may be tempted to oversell the relationship in a bid to be heard, much as many in the international-development field at times oversell the relationship between foreign aid and security. Even so, there are enough ways that human rights convincingly meet or exceed a basic minimum threshold of relevance to buy a seat at the realist’s table. A description of the human-rights and security nexus often includes parables about the risk of partnering with the rights-abusing dictator sitting on brittle foundations of public support. But contemporary history also provides compelling examples of how human rights can build or erode confidence for sensitive political negotiations, and how they might serve as critical variables for restoring trust in cases where societies are emerging from conflict or undergoing reconciliation processes. To clarify, we are not talking about the security dividends of “Democratic Peace.” While democracies rarely go to war with each other, they can pose vexing security problems in spite of—and sometimes as a result of—their duly elected governments, especially when these governments cannot or will not protect the rights of people within their borders. When the democratic institutions of representative governments are flawed, human rights can still serve as an important and much clearer barometer of legitimacy and staying power of governments of many forms.