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.
Challenging the strength of the relationship between human rights and security through academic research and case study is a noble, and perhaps necessary, endeavor. Luckily, organizations like the U.S. Institute of Peace have been considering the impact of rights on conflict for some time. But waiting for conclusive and incontrovertible proof that human rights and security are connected may be a fool’s errand for policymakers dealing with very real and vexing policy challenges now. With the benefit of the United States’ own recent diplomatic history in mind, it stands to reason that the U.S. government should seriously consider human rights as an important variable related to stability, conflict prevention, and to prospects for peace and reconciliation. To think that torture, prisoner abuse, extrajudicial killings, rape, political detentions, and excessive use of lethal force by police are irrelevant to our security interests is not only an odd proposition on its surface, but entirely contrary to our national experience.
Under all circumstances, the costs, benefits and moral hazards of any sort of intervention should be carefully assessed. The United States may not be able to solve every problem or coerce changes in foreign government behavior through leverage or threat. But at the same time, one should not mistake prudence with the misleading belief that respect for Westphalian sovereignty will provide safe harbor for American interests. Ignoring serious human-rights issues out of philosophical fidelity to the primacy of nationalism ignores the reality that the totality of U.S. engagement often constitutes a kind of intervention. When abuses become a problem, certain forms of engagement, like assistance, training, or even protection under the U.S. security umbrella, can evolve into complicity. When human-rights abuses could degrade the legitimacy of a partner, rupture the stability of a country, or threaten political processes where the United States has critical interests at stake, it becomes a U.S. prerogative to at least consider how it might approach the issue of human rights in word and deed.
Alas, even if the evidence suggests that there is much to gain from considering human rights more seriously as a security issue, the task of integrating human rights into the sausage-making of diplomacy is a challenge for policy makers trapped in a world defined by short-term interests and dominated by the often short-sighted domestic politics of security. Many policymakers still see human rights issues as a set of secondary objectives (and often as irritants) rather than an important means of achieving lasting security outcomes. They, like Clemons, believe that good policy involves “squaring away national interests first and foremost,” forgetting that the way that America goes about protecting those interests is of paramount importance. Rather than an ethical or moral failure, the principal obstacle to integrating human rights into U.S. foreign policy derives from the unbreakable cycle of “transactional diplomacy,” in which short-term actions taken to preserve the status quo accumulate into long-term policies.
In fairness, there are many good examples of places where the United States has a more or less balanced foreign policy when it comes to security and human rights. Contrary to prevailing wisdom, most human-rights advocates can find a broad range of healthy alternatives to cutting off relations with nasty regimes or endlessly moralizing from the pulpit. A need to “deal with thugs” does not mean that the United States should deliberately alienate important foreign and domestic constituencies with dangerously undiversified or sycophantic relationships with foreign governments. Unfortunately, balanced policies are harder to find in the countries and regions where core interests feature most prominently, and where governments are more likely to operate from a set of assumptions about the necessity of zero-sum trade offs. Under such circumstances, the United States often avoids integrating human rights into our policy in a serious way, or just ignores human-rights problems altogether, for fear of backlash from governments who hold U.S. interests in hock. Ultimately, following the impulse to avoid human-rights concerns will do little more than lay bare the country’s dependencies and vulnerabilities for the world to see. This, rather than the cold reality of interests, is the real tragedy of U.S. foreign policy.
By choice now or by compulsion later, the United States will need to determine if long-standing assumptions about the best way to preserve vital interests are valid, especially when dependence on cooperation of any one government makes a sine qua non partnership a single point of failure. Breaking out of this cycle will demand policies that tactfully incorporate human rights or any other sensitive issues as a part of the modern and normalized relations among states, out of confidence that doing so will rarely result in irreparable damage to relationships, and moreover because the United States has as much to offer as it has to gain out of partnership. The United States will need policies and policymakers that are capable of insulating the pursuit of our interests from the transparent dependencies that currently make it so difficult to raise sensitive issues. The successful policymaker operating within this kind of policy framework will think critically about the totality of American engagement, understand how its relationship with foreign governments—for business, security or other interests—affects a variety of constituencies, and will appreciate ways that its engagement on human rights can garner support in the United States and from critical publics in other countries for enduring partnerships.