What Price Human Rights?

What Price Human Rights?

Mini Teaser: An exchange on how the sensitive and contentious issue of human rights should be integrated into our foreign policy.

by Author(s): William F. SchulzJohn R. Bolton

Dear John:

I have noted with interest your recent appointment to the Commission on International Religious Freedom, recently created to report on violations of religious rights around the world. You would not have accepted this assignment, I am sure, if you did not care about stopping human rights abuses. At the same time your bona fides as a conservative make you an exquisite interlocutor with whom to debate the state of U.S. human rights policy today.

As far as I am concerned, that policy is pretty much of a mess. I don't believe that human rights ought to be the sole consideration governing U.S. international relations or even always the primary one. But I do believe that they ought to be a serious factor in how we relate to other nations, and that violations ought to have real and consistent consequences. That is both because respect for human rights is endemic to America's understanding of itself and because ignoring human rights crimes often has profoundly deleterious effects upon our national interest. (One of the reasons we are now so tangled up in Bosnia and Kosovo is because two Presidents waited far too long to counter Milosevic's evil ambitions.)

Given this premise, then, it helps not at all for the United States to send China decidedly mixed signals on its abominable human rights record. It is certainly confusing at best to trumpet our outrage at abuses in pariah states like Cuba and Libya while ignoring similar violations by allies like Saudi Arabia and Turkey, or trading partners like Nigeria and Indonesia. To waffle on the Land Mines Treaty or the International Criminal Court (ICC); to let Karadzic and Mladic go scot-free; to ignore Africa altogether--the policy is a mess.

But it is too easy just to blame the administration. For in my view far too many conservatives have also abandoned bedrock principles when it comes to human rights. After all, the protection of individual liberties against oppressive governments is supposed to be at the heart of conservative political theory. But as Jesse Helms points out in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, it is the conservative business community that has opposed economic sanctions designed to win those liberties. I personally believe sanctions to be of limited utility, and even then only in very circumscribed situations (and Amnesty itself takes no position on them); but they certainly ought to be included in our quiver. So should the possibility of military intervention. But it is too often conservative voices that most vociferously resist a U.S. peacekeeping role overseas to stop the slaughter of innocents.

It troubles me that a Republican Congress allows taxpayers' dollars to be wasted when U.S. security assistance is used to commit human rights violations in places like Colombia or Turkey, and when political asylum seekers, many of whom have stood up for American values in their home countries, are tossed into county jails with the general prison population.

I know from your recent article in these pages on the International Criminal Court ("Courting Danger: What's Wrong With the ICC", Winter 1998/99) that part of your own criticism of the human rights movement has to do with your disdain for so-called "customary international law." But of course the basis for most customary law when it comes to human rights is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Covenants that flow out of it. Such principles of international law were incorporated explicitly into the International Religious Freedom Act that established the commission on which you now sit because, without them, your impending criticism of other nations' treatment of religious minorities would risk sounding hollow, parochial, even xenophobic.

Elsewhere you have implied that General Pinochet should be tried, if at all, by his Chilean compatriots ("The Global Prosecutions", Foreign Affairs, January/February 1999). But given Pinochet's manipulation of the Chilean constitution before he stepped down--and his threats to cause mayhem ever since--that is like asking a jury to render a verdict while a defendant holds a gun to its head.

So I guess it comes down to this: while I am happy to skewer the Democratic administration whenever it deserves it, I am left wondering how do those conservatives who mistrust sanctions, resist military intervention, and pooh-pooh international law intend to stop human rights violations?

I certainly recognize that the human rights movement has made its own share of mistakes, both substantive and strategic. What I wonder is whether those of all political stripes can't find common ground to stop these tragic abuses. Perhaps our exchange will provide the beginnings of an answer.

Sincerely yours,


Dear Bill:

I agree with you that U.S. human rights policy today is "pretty much of a mess." But to understand why, we need to start well before any analysis of the appropriate role of "human rights" in foreign policy. We must first understand how freedom is best protected in individual nations, which is, after all, where we live.

We should really be debating individual liberty, not "human rights." Liberty is America's highest value, and what we offer by example to other nations ready to bear the heavy burden of sustaining it. By contrast, "human rights" stresses democratization more than liberty, and carries too much unrelated baggage, including values that are often at war with liberty. Isaiah Berlin captured the point well in his essay "Two Concepts of Liberty", explaining how Benjamin Constant

asked why a man should deeply care whether he is crushed by a popular government or by a monarch, or even by a set of oppressive laws. He saw that the main problem for those who desire 'negative', individual freedom is not who wields this authority, but how much authority should be placed in any set of hands.

I start with an overall skepticism about all aspects of government, not just those few protected areas on the "human rights" honor roll. I note that your letter doesn't define "human rights." Perhaps you agree with me that continuing economic deregulation and lower taxes should currently be our highest political priorities in enhancing the liberty of individual Americans. Or, perhaps you prefer such things as mandating patients' "bills of rights", enforcing racial and gender employment quotas, and limiting political contributions and expenditures. Your view will certainly measure your commitment, and that of your "human rights" colleagues, to real liberty.

Next is the operational issue of how best to protect liberty. The Framers of our Constitution thought this their principal task, which is why they labored to create a national government of separated powers, and a division of authority between national and state governments. The Framers understood that it was the institutional clash among the different branches that would most effectively keep power from "one set of hands." Michael Novak has summed up the Framers' belief: "In God we trust. . . . For every one else, checks and balances."

Although even many Americans believe that the Bill of Rights is what protects their "human rights", this is a profoundly misguided view both of what the Framers intended, and of what, in practice, protects our liberty. Your letter mentions the Universal Declaration of Human Rights rather than the Bill of Rights, but James Madison's cogent assessment applies to both:

"experience proves the inefficacy of a bill of rights on those occasions when its control is most needed. Repeated violations of these parchment barriers have been committed by overbearing majorities in every State."

The Constitution protects liberty not just because it has the best list of rights, but because its daily operation prevents the concentration of power that would threaten those rights. Clearly Madison's approach was correct: history's pile of meaningless constitutions and declarations about "rights" could severely depress the market price of wallpaper.

Thus, my analysis, while libertarian in outcome, is Burkean in logic--to understand history's most successful defense of liberty before venturing abroad. This explains my concentration on matters you apparently think are "parochial, even xenophobic." I am nonetheless unshakably of the view that these preconditions to safeguarding liberty within our own nation must inform our foreign policy.

Let me, therefore, set out what I see as the basic propositions that follow from this experience:

First, American foreign policy decisionmakers should be responsible for and accountable to Americans, not to "world opinion" or "the international community", whatever those might be. For it is, of course, American national security we are discussing when we discuss foreign policy.

Second, our interests and our preferences may or may not be the same thing at the same time; no U.S. policy can succeed that does not comprehend and analyze these variables distinctly and dispassionately. To put it bluntly, the unswerving pursuit of preferences over interests may compromise the advancement and protection of both.

Third, reasoning from abstract principles alone does not resolve individual cases, and emotional self-satisfaction is not the same as policy. As The New Republic put it in 1914, "unless you build from the brutalities of earth, you step out into empty space." An adult foreign policy demands neither instant gratification nor conformity to one-size-fits-all prejudices.

The Clinton administrat-ion's failure to comprehend such prudential considerations--let alone follow them--substantially explains why not only our human rights policy, but our foreign policy as a whole, is a "mess." The real determinant of success internationally is judgment, the ability to discern conflicts among our preferences and assign priorities for our interests consistent with available resources. Exercising that judgment is not aided by slogans or buzz words, which evaporate when confronted with a complex and contradictory reality.



Dear John:

Your letter is very helpful, although I suspect we live in two different worlds.

While liberty may be "America's highest value", it has never been the only one--life, happiness, property and a free conscience were the others the Founders derived from natural law--and its preservation is put in jeopardy if it stands in isolation from the others. Furthermore, as the conservative scholar Clinton Rossiter made clear in his classic study of the Founders' political thought, the purpose of government, in addition to protecting liberty, was to "secure [our] persons and property against violence, remove obstructions to [our] pursuit of happiness, help [us] to live virtuous, useful lives, and in general preserve the largest degree of natural equality."

Now you and I will certainly agree that democracy is the best form of government by which to obtain these goals, but where did you get the idea that "'human rights' stresses democratization more than liberty"? In fact it is just the opposite. Nothing in the international human rights framework precludes Jordan from having a King, though it certainly prohibits that King from imprisoning his nonviolent critics. Indeed, some of the world's purest democracies, including ours, are guilty of serious human rights violations.

You ask for a definition of "human rights" and I present it to you in the form of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. You are correct of course when you disparage the power of parchment alone to secure rights . . . which is exactly why you should support some form of international enforcement mechanism like the International Criminal Court. Absent that, the question posed in my first letter becomes even more urgent: however do you propose to stop unfair trials, false imprisonment, torture and genocide?

Your answer seems to be that we should ruminate on the American experience and make the tough calls (whatever those are). But even your hero Burke taught that every nation has a place in a worldwide civilization, albeit one unfolding in accord with what he called "a divine tactic." Tell American business, or our soldiers stationed overseas, that we should ignore "world opinion"! It is exactly in order to secure American interests that we are forced to take others' interests into account in our decision making.

There are two reasons why human rights must not be peripheral to American foreign policy making. First, because they reflect those fundamental American values, including liberty, that Rossiter describes. If we would be the model you wish us to be, then our policies must conform to our values. Maybe an artist's model can get away with sitting pretty and passive, but we can't. And when we do, as we did in 1994 while Rwanda was imploding, the consequences are enormous--for other people surely, but also for any sense of a moral order in the world, to say nothing of our own souls. This is in part, I presume, the motivation behind your work against religious persecution.

The second reason is because our own political and economic interests are so often implicated in assuring respect for other people's fundamental human rights. When foreign countries neglect labor standards, they tempt U.S. companies to transfer production and jobs overseas. When U.S. corporations invest internationally, they risk enormous losses caused by the instability and corruption that the denial of human rights so frequently fosters. Given increasing globalization--the fact, for example, that our pension funds are regularly invested in foreign markets--almost every American has a direct financial stake in encouraging respect for human rights. And, as we have seen all too clearly in the recent Chinese missile secrets scandal, a national security stake as well. For who can doubt that had the United States been more willing to stand on principle and engage China over its human rights abuses, so we would have been less inclined to overlook China's intelligence perfidy for fear of it jeopardizing a pocketful of gold?

Be it toxins that know no boundaries and are spread when a free press or independent monitoring groups are stifled; drug interdiction made more difficult when U.S. counter-narcotics assistance is diverted to commit political crimes; immigration flows caused by the denial of basic rights at home; or terrorists, their human rights abuses having failed to deter us from supplying them arms, turning those very same arms against us--in these ways and dozens more, taking human rights seriously is far from abstract and far from just a matter of preference.

This is the world I live in, John, and, whether you like it or not, you do too. So my question to you once again is simply this: what are we going to do about it?

Sincerely yours,


Dear Bill:

I must say I am somewhat confounded by your approach so far. I expected that you would describe why you (and the larger human rights community) believe that human rights should be central to American foreign policy. Instead, you have adopted a scattershot approach to what are in your view various mistaken foreign policy decisions, and thrown several miscellaneous punches at me personally. Flattered as I am by the personal attention, I want to stay on course to delineate the real differences between our respective positions. Let me try again.

First, U.S. foreign policy decisionmakers--as opposed to academics or pressure groups--have to make American policy. Is the United States the centerpiece of your foreign policy concerns, as it is for me, or is it something else? If it is a broad theory about the way the world should look, or "world opinion", or whatever else you think is valuable, I think you should say so unambiguously.

Second, abstractions and generalizations, whether about "human rights" or "geostrategic imperatives", mask often difficult, case-by-case choices among values and interests. Setting priorities and making choices (and understanding and accepting the consequences) is what policy is about, not simply talking about condemning this injustice or righting that wrong. Let's look at a catalogue of specific cases.

* China: You argue that "engaging" with the PRC about its human rights abuses would have made us "less inclined to overlook China's intelligence perfidy for fear of jeopardizing a pocketful of gold." I think you have this badly mixed up. In the political circles where I travel, we have been concerned about PRC efforts to proliferate the technology of weapons of mass destruction, its military adventurism in the South China Sea, and its repression of religious freedom and ethnic differences for some time. Let me allay any fears you have: real threats to U.S. national security easily trump commercial concerns.

I want to get in a word here about Taiwan as well. One of President Clinton's worst acts of appeasement was his remarks in China mouthing almost word for word the PRC's "Three Nos" policy (no independent Taiwan; no "two Chinas"; no Taiwan membership in international organizations requiring "statehood"). Although his much-touted speech about PRC human rights violations received more attention here, it was apparently broadcast unannounced and untranslated in China; by contrast, the President's implicit disparagement of the free society on Taiwan was flashed around like a Communist Party press release. I didn't notice that human rights groups sprang to Taiwan's defense; perhaps I missed it. The critical tone and substance concerning China in the State Department's annual human rights report doesn't redress the balance. Beijing believes that President Clinton speaks best for his administration, not the anonymous scriveners at State.

* Haiti: Deciding whether to intervene militarily in Haiti was a no-brainer, and President Clinton got it wrong. There was no strategic significance requiring intervention, which was justified almost entirely from a "human rights" perspective. We can all thank Providence that our casualties have been so light. And, on "human rights", what has been accomplished? Almost nothing, after over four years of U.S. occupation. Political assassinations of opposition leaders are back in style, parliament has expired, and Haiti is again ruled by presidential decree. What a mistake from start to finish.

* Somalia: This was the Clinton administration's first exercise in "assertive multilateralism" and "nation-building." It was one thing for President Bush to launch a massive humanitarian relief operation, which nonetheless had a limited mission and duration. It was quite another to turn Somalia, a place of no discernible interest to the United States, into a massive social experiment, which is what the administration did with relish. The tragic deaths of American soldiers in Mogadishu only underline how perilous it can be to pursue abstractions over interests.

* Chechnya: Press reports indicate that human rights abuses were probably committed by the military forces on both sides of the Chechnyan war of secession. Once again, however, I see no tangible American interests implicated by the fighting, whichever side was behaving most reprehensibly. My approach would have been to tell both sides privately through formal and informal channels to desist, but I would not have contemplated any military involvement to correct human rights abuses. Would you?

Obviously this list could go on and on; you or I could legitimately have picked different conflicts or problems. But all of them illustrate my central point: making policy involves trade-offs between interests and values that often speak in absolute terms. The human rights community has never admitted this dilemma, let alone come to terms with it.



Dear John:

Of course we are talking about the role of human rights in American foreign policy. Where we differ is that I believe that making human rights concerns central to that policy--not making them the exclusive determinant or even always the pre-eminent one but always at least integral to it--is in our best interests. That, as I have said in both my letters, is for two reasons: because human rights mirror America's highest values (including liberty) and any nation that abandons its highest values betrays itself, and because nine times out of ten the pursuit of human rights is also in our best strategic interests. Furthermore, and not incidentally, the United States has undertaken a series of legal obligations with profound human rights consequences. You may not like it but the Senate has ratified the Convention Against Genocide, as well as many other human rights-related treaties and covenants, and to flout the rule of law by acting as if those obligations mean nothing is hardly the way to win friends for the democratic way of life around the world.

Where we also differ, I guess, is that I believe that there must be some consistency to our human rights policy based upon a coherent set of principles--philosophical and/or legal. Does this mean that we respond with the same degree of force or the same tactics to every human rights crisis? Of course not. I don't know a single human rights organization that advocated U.S. military intervention in Chechnya, where to do so might have gotten us into confrontation with another nuclear power. But when genocide was underway in Rwanda, the UN commander on the scene believed (correctly, as it turned out) that it could be short-circuited with the provision of just a few hundred more UN troops; and as the United States has legal obligations to prevent genocide, there is no excuse for our obstructing an international response.

You advocate "setting priorities and making choices" but you give no indication of the basis upon which you could do so, and if that basis is somehow contained in the four examples you discuss, it will take a keener mind than mine to tease it out. (Your observations on Haiti, by the way, are startling. You claim that U.S. intervention was based upon "no strategic significance" and that "almost nothing" in the way of human rights has been accomplished. But have you forgotten the thousands of Haitian refugees streaming toward our shores? And do you really believe that an end to three thousand political killings and who knows how many thousands of rapes is really nothing?)

As it makes foreign policy decisions about human rights, the United States should keep in mind such principles as these: that our criticism of other governments (be it China for religious persecution or Cuba for political prisoners) must rest upon more than American tradition or muscle if it is not to risk being dismissed as mere whim or prejudice; that therefore the United States must actively promote international standards on human rights and abide by them ourselves; that our commitment to those standards requires us to leverage our influence (sometimes diplomatically, sometimes economically, sometimes militarily) to advance human rights; and that there is rarely, if ever, a conflict between such advancement and our national security. On the contrary, in as complex and interdependent a world as this one, enforcing uniform human rights standards--establishing institutions of accountability through which to end impunity, for example--will in the last analysis make the world a far safer place for all of us.

We are in a shooting war in Kosovo today in part because we failed to abide by these principles, failed to be as tough on criminals overseas as we claim to be here at home. Regardless of one's position on the current military action, it is hard to dispute that, had we acted earlier in Bosnia to stop the slaughter there, and had we taken Karadzic and Mladic into custody after they were indicted in The Hague, the odds are better than even that Milosevic would not be playing the dangerous game he is today.

Certainly it is true that realpolitik requires a balancing of interests rather than a proclamation of absolutes. I would contend, however, that those interests are seriously compromised if we give short shrift to human rights. To base U.S. policy on no more than a narrow notion of today's profit is worse than shortsighted. It is positively hazardous. It is to end up walking blind through shifting sands.

Sincerely yours,


Dear Bill:

There is no subtle way to say that your policy is at best hopelessly incoherent and internally contradictory, and at worst perilously detached from tangible American interests. You say variously that human rights should be "central" to our foreign policy and not given "short shrift", that they must be "based on a coherent set of principles" (although not "a proclamation of absolutes"), and that we "must actively promote international standards on human rights." Even granting that you abjure "the same degree of force or the same tactics in every human rights crisis", your universalist rhetoric makes it impossible by definition to square your actions with your faith. You say that not "a single human rights organization . . . advocated U.S. military intervention in Chechnya", but you applaud the U.S. military interventions in Haiti and criticize our passivity in Rwanda. This menu simply confirms my point. It may not bother you, but it should bother any foreign policy practitioner in a democracy who must explain a complicated reality to a confused public.

Your very effort to lock away in the closet the true believers of the human rights movement shows exactly what I mean. You say I give no basis for my priorities and choices, but this shows you have either not read my previous letters, or that you do not understand or acknowledge what national interests are. The choices we face are among individually valuable but often competing interests, and it is precisely my point that there is no magic formula to know in advance how to behave in each diverse case. In Cap Weinberger's famous phrase, if I said any more here, I would only be repeating myself.

You may finally have acknowledged that we are talking about American foreign policy, but that reluctant admission cannot disguise that what you are really trying to do is construct a world order in which America is simply one more part of the food chain. I do not accept that future. You worry that our criticism of other governments "will be dismissed as whim or prejudice." If that is what others believe, so be it; the willfully ignorant are not worth our time or resources in any event. If any foreign leaders really think that the consistent advocacy of our basic interests is "whim or prejudice", I can only hope that they are the leaders of our enemies, because we will prevail easily against them.

Let's take Kosovo as the last case study, and an excellent one it is because it shows the results when human rights policy goes to war, this time in President Clinton's air campaign. What truly happened in Kosovo, not in the sunny world of human rights rhetoric but in the real world where idealistic but misguided policies actually take their toll? Hundreds of thousands of additional Kosovars, whose rights we were supposedly protecting, are now dead or have become refugees, separated from their families, never again to return to their homes. In Serbia, the human rights air war has achieved the unthinkable: increasing popular support for an authoritarian regime that denies democratic freedom to the very Serbs now rallying to its side. I see no gain for human rights here.

You say that "the odds are better than even" that earlier action in Bosnia and the arrest of key Bosnian Serb leaders would have deterred Slobodan Milosevic from his present conduct. This is utter nonsense. If there were ever a case where the deterrence theories so beloved by human rights advocates should have worked, it was Kosovo. Instead, they are exposed as unsupported by the evidence, and illusory in their protections.

There is a functioning war crimes tribunal for Bosnia, not to mention the International Criminal Court created last summer in Rome. It was the supposed success of the former that led to the creation of the latter; but neither has had the slightest impact. To the contrary, it is undisputed that the pace of ethnic cleansing dramatically increased after the NATO attacks began. Kosovo is thus a paradigm case where even with powerful weapons literally dropping from the skies on the war criminals, they are still at it. The Clinton administration's continued threats of war crimes prosecutions show that it is in a state of denial about the havoc its misguided policies have caused.

We do not know, as this letter is written, how Kosovo will ultimately turn out, but we cannot wait until historians decide. Responsibility for the incompetence of the Clinton administration's human rights war lies not only on the President and his top advisers, human rights devotees all, but also on those who press these policies politically without taking into account the failings of the leaders they elect and support. Kosovo is an example of a policy gone horribly wrong, but not because of insufficient attention to human rights by the administration. The opposite, coupled with what can only be described as a dreamy concept of real American interests, is more likely.

Under the two most recent Republican Presidents, who coupled idealism with a hard-headed view of America's interests, we won this century's third world war, and peacefully at that. Under their successor (not to mention their immediate predecessor), who professes that human rights are, as you wish, at the center of his policy, we have stumbled badly all around the world, squandering opportunities and interests without end.

I think the choice is easy, but as our letters reveal, we apparently disagree.



Essay Types: Essay