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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 51, December 10, 2011

American Tradition and the Concept of Human Rights in United States’ Foreign Policy

Monday 12 December 2011, by Sunita Samal


Human rights represent an ambitious attempt to bring rationality into the political institutions and civil society. Liberty and human rights are both a cause of the American Revolution (1776) and had been a purpose for drafting the United States’ Constitution. No idea aroused more hope and greater fear than the insistence on human rights in politics and society. The American Revolution, therefore, attracted attention because its leaders justified their action on the basis of ideas about national and individual liberty which could give legitimacy to similar revolutions anywhere in the world. The United States is thus unique in being able to claim that, in speaking of its own national values, it does not separate itself from other nations and other people.1

The emphasis on human rights at one level symbolises a long struggle to give idealism a more prominent place in the making of the American foreign policy. The idealist position stands in sharp contrast to political realism. The realists reject a foreign policy based on idealism because they believe idealists tend to overestimate the impact of value in the international political situation and policies of the government. Realism represents an approach that insists on consideration of national interest that should determine policy-decisions. How-ever, what constitutes a realistic foreign policy is much debated. One of the United States’ leading realists, Henry A. Kissinger, said that pursuit of American power is moral, because it is intended to preserve the world balance of power for the ultimate safety of all people. Two peculiarities strike us while we analyse the place of value in the US foreign policy. The first is the central place the language of ‘right’ occupies in American political life at all levels. The second is the search for legitimising the framework of ideas to justify the projection of American power beyond the frontiers of the state.2

Libertarian and Egalitarian Views on US Human Rights Policy

THE United States, which was founded on the proclamation of inalienable rights, got independence in 1776. The first national act on the part of the USA was the Declaration of Independence and it proclaims: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.’3 The original understanding of the meaning of human rights was clearly expressed in the American Declaration of Independence: when the authors of the Declaration called these rights ‘inalienable’, they implied that rights should not depend upon the prior performance of certain duties by the citizen or be postponed until any other category of rights is achieved. Rights were considered to enable individuals to pursue happiness freely, but not to supply happiness itself. Like that there is a right of individual to develop, but no right to development. American liberals from Jefferson onwards have associated happiness with independence and that with the possession of property. In this way, a concern for the right to and protection of property became a part of the American liberal thinking and source of considerable debate.4

There is nothing so far in the original libertarian position which would suggest a very active foreign policy in support of human rights. The right to life, liberty and property are restraints upon the government to provide welfare beyond that implied by the provision of defence from external attack and the essential structure of law and order. The whole thrust of libertarian thought is to limit the discretionary power of the government in interfering in the market order at home and abroad. But the egalitarians refused to accept the idea that morality stops at the border. Where the original libertarian favours an isolationist stance in foreign affairs, the egalitarians generally favour an active human rights policy in which the United States improves its performance. In other words, they urge the USA to base its relations with other countries on their human rights record not merely on moral grounds but because failure to do so is likely to have an adverse effect on US interests.5

The United States’ approach to human rights as a guide to its foreign policy can be discussed under five concepts, that is, the natural rights idea of human rights, economic content of human rights, self-determination as human rights, anti-communism and human rights, and terrorism and human rights.

Natural Rights Idea of Human Rights

THE philosophy of the natural rights idea of human rights, as it is embodied in the American political system, was essentially a negative one. It was addressed to the limitations and constraints upon public authority rather than to the positive obligations of the government. Federalists like Alexander Hamilton were of the opinion that human rights play a limited role, if any, in foreign policy. During that time it was a foreign policy of isolation based on expanding economic self-interest. But moral, ideological, economic doctrines becoming so much a part of the American concept of natural rights, reinforced a foreign policy which avoided interference in the affairs of other states. During that time, the United States adopted a foreign policy based on economic and commercial expansion in which human rights played an insignificant role in foreign policy.6

The natural rights philosophy provided guidance and inspiration to the founding fathers who needed these to establish the framework of the political system. One of the major conflicts of the early national period was over the extent to which support for human rights abroad should guide the foreign policy-making. The natural rights philosophy states that if an individual has rights, so has the state and no state has the right to interfere in the domestic affairs of another state. Thus the doctrine of non-intervention played an important role in helping to establish and maintain at least a minimum standard of international order and justice.7 The United States refused to undertake any foreign crusade for freedom despite much public focus on human rights abroad.8

This above motive of the United States’ foreign policy is illustrated in the following example of Austro-Hungary war of 1848 when Austria was to face the greatest revolution in her history. At the time the most serious enemy of the Hapsburgs were the Hungarian nationalists. The old Hungarian Diet, which was the vehicle of the revolution of Budapest, passed laws that gave Hungary a responsible government and complete autonomy from Austria.9 During that revolution, Senator Cass of the United States Congress introduced a resolution instructing the Foreign Relations Committee to enquire into the expediency of suspending diplomatic relations with Austria whose atrocious acts sacrificed human lives and liberty. Cass assured the Senate that since American trade with Austria was insignificant, so suspending relations with would lead to negligible cost for them. But critics like John Parker Hale argued that if the Hungarian repression was a moral question, the resolution should speak of the duty but not expediency of suspending relationship with Austria.10 Responding to the criticism of American interests in the Austro-Hungary war, Daniel Webster said that the United States always cherishes interest in the fortunes of nations struggling for popular Constitution and national independence like their own. But this sympathy is quite consistent with amicable relations with all and far from being hostile towards any of the parties to those national struggles. But they claim no right to take part in the struggle for foreign power in order to promote those ends.11

The legal concepts of non-intervention were at least partly responsible for the restrained use of human rights in foreign policy which guided through most of the nineteenth century. The Spanish-American war (1898) and Wilson’s intervention were regarded as temporary exceptions to the intervention principle. In the opinion of President Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09) Americans have plenty of sins at home to fight against and it is very much wiser for them to concern themselves with striving for their own moral and material betterment at home than concern themselves with trying to better the conditions in other nations. He further stated that Americans can do more for the general uplifting of humanity by putting a stop to civic corruption, brutal lawlessness and violent race-prejudices at home than by passing resolutions about wrong-doings elsewhere.

Despite Theodore Roosevelt’s effort to recall his countrymen to the older tradition of doing good by example rather than by interference, the conviction grew in the twentieth century that crimes against humanity indeed have a cosmopolitan character. In the post-World War II period, we have seen the trend of American foreign policy-makers moving cautiously towards revision of the previous principle, a revision which accepts gross human rights violations as ground for legitimate interference.

Economic Content of Human Rights in US Foreign Policy

THE economic content to the earlier American concept of human rights was acted more as a restraint on the government than in conformity with the modern notion of economic rights which is considered as the positive obligation of the government. The commitment to a liberal international economic order has generally been seen as freedom in economic competition and right to private property. America’s founding fathers saw the connection between property rights and human rights and considered the right to property as the visible and formal protection of the right to consent. So there is a indefensible connection between the right to property, understood as a comprehensive political right, and human rights. The right to property is a great fence to liberty because it is the fence to consent.13

The congruence between the American concept of economic interests and human rights can be seen in the broader principles of the US policy such as the Open Door Policy (1899-1900) and the United States’ commitment to the free trade policy. This is also expressed in the Monroe Doctrine (1823) in which the American interest in the expansion of trade and investment in Latin America coincided with the American support for the independence of the Latin America states from European colonialism. But the rise of the socialist ideology in Europe in the nineteenth century and the advent of communism in Russia in 1917 provided a serious challenge to the notion of the limited economic content of human rights.

Franklin Roosevelt (1933-45), perhaps more than any American President until Jimmy Carter (1977-81), recognised the positive economic content to the concept of human rights as his famous Four Freedoms (freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear) included freedom from want. In spite of President Roosevelt’s cautious move to incorporate some positive economic content into the notion of human rights, official American policy adhered to the traditional view. The US official policy from 1948 to 1977 seemed to suggest that while improvement in the economic condition of a lot of human beings might be a cause to which the US could devote significant time and resources, there was no obligation for the government to do anything about it.

Self-Determination, Anti-Communism, Anti-Terrorism and the Concept of Human Rights

THERE have been two periods in US history when human rights have become so intimately intertwined with other concepts as a guide to its foreign policy. The first was the Wilsonian era (1912-20) when the concept of self-determination based on human rights played a central role in the formulation of foreign policy. The second was the post-World War II period when the devotion to the traditional American concept of human rights contributed to and then trans-formed into anti-communism which dominated foreign policy-making for most of the post-World War period. The concept of human rights could be seen in other periods of American development as well but in these specific periods the connection became so intimate as to give human rights an exclusive meaning for American self-determination and anti-communism.

Self-determination has often been considered as a basic human right which has also been seen closely connected to other human rights. This relationship seems ambiguous because of the implicit divergent meanings of self-determi-nation that grows out of many political beliefs. The foreign policy supporting this right was primarily associated with the Wilsonian era although this principle influenced American policy both before and after that period. Wilson felt that the US had an ‘exceptional mission’ to spread human freedom which he saw as practically synonymous with national self-determination. The United States continued to assume that self-determination in the sense of national independence led to political democracy which in turn guarantees individual rights.

The support for self-determination formally become a part of the US foreign policy, when the Monroe Doctrine (1823) announced that the attempt to recolonise any of the new republics in the US would be viewed by the United States as an unfriendly act. Woodrow Wilson would later explicitly link the principle underlying the Monroe Doctrine to that of national self-determination. Wilson‘s claim of the US commitment to national self-determination represented a departure from, rather than an extension of, the American foreign policy. Although he publicly exposed the doctrine in the most universal terms, he envisaged at best its application to the defeated power. Although Wilson’s activism on behalf of human rights represented a temporary peak, it left an indelible mark on the use of human rights as a guide to the US foreign policy. However, the assumption on which this commitment to self-determination was based was seriously questioned by the rise of militant German nationalism associated with Nazism.

In the post-World War II period, the promotion of human rights abroad became intrinsically connected with anti-communism. The United States argued that the communist countries were the most powerful opponents of liberty on earth. It also argued that when the authoritarian regimes violate human rights, they generally do so not in the name of different political creeds but in the name of national security; in contrast the communist countries violate those rights in the name of political ideology.16 The communist countries were singled out by the force of their ideology since the passing of Nazism and Fascism. According to the US, communism remains the only major political doctrine that challenges human rights in principle. But Tom J. Farer rejected the implicit assumption that Right-wing authoritarian regimes accorded to citizens and groups a larger measure of freedom than Left-wing totalitarian regimes. He challenged the notion that Marxist regimes or radical movements in the Third World were a universal threat to the American military and economic security regime and the US foreign policy was a purely defensive response to the hegemonic ambitions of the Soviet Union.17

The treatment of human rights and anti-communism as though they were virtually synonymous reached its peak in the Eisenhower-Dulles years. The identification of human rights with anti-communism led the Eisenhower Administration and its successor to a policy of alliances with many authoritarian regimes in various parts of the world. The most obvious pressure which can be applied against governments that abuse the fundamental human rights of their populations is economic sanction and it is easier to impose such measures against the communist bloc countries than against America’s allies which did not share the current United States’ enthusiasm for economic warfare. But human rights agitation in the East-West context can be subsumed within a concept of national interest which is dominated by security. The issue of human rights versus security interest seems to arise mainly in her relationship with the Third World countries beset with severe problems relating to social and economic development. These problems are often at the centre of the political struggle between Leftists and Rightists within these countries. And more often, the US finds itself allied with Third World Right-wing regimes guilty of gross human rights violations or in support of counter-insurgency groups conspiring to overthrow Leftist regimes. The fear of security and overwhelming American economic interest abroad are the main reasons of concern that outweigh distinctive American values.

Concluding Observations

THE divisive issues receded when the US was attacked by terrorists on September 11, 2001. The attack destroyed the World Trade Centre in New York and a wing of the Pentagon killing thousands of Americans. It was a crime against humanity involving gross violation of human rights. In 2001, US and British forces and their allies ousted the Taliban regime in Afghanistan which harboured and supported the Al-Qaeda network led by Osama bin Laden responsible for the attack on the United States. The US took action against the Serbians who killed Albanians and committed a crime against humanity. The shadow of the US foreign policy, which was reflected in the East-West divide before the end of the Cold War, is now mirrored in the North-South divide. The containment of comm-unism as the US foreign policy strategy is today replaced by the containment of Islamic terrorism which is guilty of gross violation of human rights. The US attack on Iraq in 2003 and the operation to kill Osama bin Laden in 2011 are matters of serious concern because of their controversial nature in relation to human rights.

1. Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, 1988, (ed.), with an Introduction by Lloyd S. Kramer, Paine and Jefferson on Liberty, New York, Continnum.
2. James Mayall, 1986, ‘The United States’ in Foreign Policy and Human Rights: Issues and Responses, (ed.), R.J. Vincent, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
3. ‘Human Rights: Unfolding of American Tradition’, The Presidential Commission for Observation of Human Rights, 1968, Historical Office, Bureau of Public Affairs, US Department of State.
4. Don DeBats, 1983, ‘Liberal Democratic Theory in America’ in Liberal Democratic Theory and its Critics, (ed.), Norman Wintrop, Croom Helm Limited.
5. James Mayal, 1986, ‘The United States’ in Foreign Policy and Human Rights: Issues and Responses, (ed.), R.J. Vincent, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
6. M. Glen Johnson, ‘Historical Perspectives on Human Rights and US Foreign Policy’, Universal Human Rights, Vol. 2, No. 3, July-September, 1980.
7. Ibid.
8. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., ‘Human Rights and American Tradition’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 57, No. 3, 1979.
9. H. Hearder, ‘General History of Europe, Europe in the Nineteenth Century, 1830-1880, Longman Inc., New York,©1966.
10. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., ‘Human Rights and American Tradition’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 57, No. 3, 1979.
11. M. Glen John, ‘Historical Perspectives on Human Rights and US Foreign Policy’, Universal Human Rights, Vol. 2, No. 3, 1980.
12. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., ‘Human Rights and American Tradition’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 57, No. 3, 1979.
13. Edward J. Erler, 1989, ‘The Great Fence to Liberty: The Right to Property in the American Founding’ in Liberty, Property and The Foundation of American Constitution, (ed.), Ellen Frankel Paul and Howard Dickman, State University of New York Press.
14. M. Glen Johnson, ’Historical Perspectives on Human Rights and US Foreign Policy’, Universal Human Rights, Vol. 2 No. 3, July-September 1980.
15. Walker F. Connor, ’The United States and the Right of Self-Determination’, in Dynamics of Human Rights in US Foreign Policy, (ed.), Natalie Kaufman Hevener, New Jersey©1981.
16. Daniel P. Moynihan, ‘The Politics of Human Rights’, Commentary, Vol. 64, No. 2, August, 1977.
17. Tom J. Fare, 1979, ‘On a Collison Course: The American Campaign for Human Rights and Anti-Radical Bias in the Third World’ in Human Rights and American Foreign Policy, (ed.), Donald P. Kommers and Gilburt D. Loescher, NotreDame Press, London.

Dr Sunita Samal is a former Research Scholar of the JNU, New Delhi.

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