essays

Dec 1, 1980

Carter’s Human Rights Policy

“Schlesinger traces its immediate roots to a widespread disaffection with Realpolitik in foreign policy during the Kissinger years.”

“Human Rights and the American Tradition.” Foreign Affairs 57, 3(1979):503–524.

Despite the confusion caused by the Carter administration’s policy on human rights, the campaign has plainly touched exposed nerves throughout the world—from Moscow to Santiago, from Kampala to Peking. American concern for the status of human freedoms in foreign nations may be traced back to the early years of American foreign policy.

The movement for a universal application of natural rights is basically a product of the experience of the last four centuries. Tocqueville has persuasively attributed this new humanistic ethic to the rise of the idea of equality. The perception of a common dignity shared by all human beings inevitably nurtured a mood of compassion for the whole race.

Since their proclamation of the “inalienable” rights of man in 1776, Americans have generally agreed that their country must serve as a beacon of human rights to an unregenerate world. Disagreement has always turned on the question of how America is to execute her mission. Should the United States make an active effort to influence governmental policies in other nations, or should it merely set an example to the rest of the world by improving and refining its institutions at home?

One historical case clarifies American alternatives: the efforts of Sen. Lewis Cass of Michigan to promote a suspension of diplomatic relations with Austria because of the bloody Austrian and Russian suppression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848. During Congressional debate on this proposal, Sen. John Parker Hale of New Hampshire raised classic objections to an active pursuit of the cause of human rights in other nations.

He declared, first of all, that the Cass proposal was hypocritically selective—singling out Austria for punishment while omitting Russia with its greater commercial and diplomatic importance to the United States. He also pointed out that, within sight of the nation’s Capital, human beings were being openly sold at auction. America must first put her own house in order, he asserted, before launching on a crusade to reform the enfeebled Austrians.

Turning his attention to the Carter human rights policy, Schlesinger traces its immediate roots to a widespread disaffection with Realpolitik in foreign policy during the Kissinger years. However, soon after President Carter affirmed that “our commitment to human rights must be absolute,” this new emphasis in foreign policy drew numerous criticisms—many recalling those of Senator Hale a century earlier. There were charges of hypocrisy, double standards, messianism, cultural imperialism, racism, as well as accusations that the U.S. was undermining anticommunist allies and scuttling détente.

Despite premature obituaries, the repeated resurrections of the human rights campaign demonstrated both the continuity of the administration’s concern, as well as the underlying vitality of the issue. For all its vulnerabilities, the policy encouraged fighters for freedom around the globe and helped secure the release of political prisoners in countries such as South Korea, Brazil, and Cuba. It has also placed the burden within the American government upon those who wish to embrace despots and has significantly altered the world’s view of the U.S. as a rampant capitalist power bent on global hegemony.

In Prof. Schlesinger’s view, therefore, the Carter human rights policy must stand as a qualified success, but as a success nonetheless.