Human rights are a worthy but tricky foundation for foreign policy


The Biden administration is reintroducing liberal principles – the promotion of democracy and human rights – as a major foundation of U.S. foreign policy. Rejecting the Trumpian transactional approach, which sought to deal with foreign governments on the basis of give and take (often more take than give) regardless of their regime types and moral commitments, the Biden administration seeks to re-center democratization and human rights proliferation in its foreign policy agenda. Clearly in line with core American values, this change will likely be praised by many progressives and conservatives alike. But it also opens a Pandora’s box of challenges.

The most obvious challenge is that of legitimacy: How can the U.S. maintain the legitimacy of its liberal principles when its uneven application of these principles reveals rank hypocrisy? The U.S. has historically allied itself with, and actively promoted, authoritarian regimes, as long as they were in accordance with U.S. economic or military interests. The U.S. still turns a blind eye to major human rights violations by allies or nations it seeks to court, while simultaneously condemning those countries it considers its adversaries.

Thus, we hear volumes about abuses by China, for very good reason, but next to nothing about human rights violations by Vietnam, which the U.S. considers a major anti-China ally. The U.S. is relatively quiet about massive extrajudicial killings by the Philippine government, nearly silent about India’s gross and growing abuse of its Muslim citizens and seemingly tongue-tied about the shredding of democracy by U.S. NATO ally Turkey. Condemning human rights abuses is the act of taking a moral stand in foreign policy. Moral stands don’t go over well when applied inconsistently — when foes’ feet are held to the fire while transgressions by friends are ignored.

The next challenge the U.S. faces with its renewed liberal foreign policy is one of implementation. Lecturing other countries about their human right abuses rarely achieves much, and tends to annoy them. Sanctioning them often hurts their populations, and so-called smart sanctions (targeting elites or other particular parties) tend to have little effect. Famously, the U.S. has sanctioned Cuba for more than 50 years to no avail. Armed intervention to promote liberal principles abroad almost always fails, at great human and economic costs, as we have seen in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, among others.

The best way to promote liberal principles through foreign policy is to shore up U.S. democracy, dealing with rightwing threats, racism, police brutality and inequality. Make the U.S. the beacon to the world it often claims to be.

Next, promote individual rights through education, cultural outreach and exchange programs of students, public intellectuals and leaders. Engagement tends to work better as a democratization tactic than forceful compliance, as we have seen as the EU has been reaching out to former Soviet republics, inviting them to become members if they democratize.

Launching a new cold war by trying to organize the world into two camps, the democratic versus the authoritarian, is an unfortunate way to proceed. Many issues require global collaboration for success. This is especially true about such key issues as curbing environmental destruction from climate change and curbing loss of life from the pandemic.

Furthermore, dealing with non-democratic regimes is beneficial for the economic well-being of the U.S. and its allies, especially trade with China. The U.S. should include the promotion of human rights among its foreign policy guidelines but not make it the core organizing principle of the Biden world order. Such an ordering is unrealistic and will ultimately prove an ineffective way to promote liberal principles abroad. Shoring up U.S. democracy and promoting human rights with nonviolent, educational and cultural means will serve all concerned better in a world that will remain very flawed.

Amitai Etzioni is a professor of international affairs at The George Washington University. He is the author of “Security First: For a Muscular, Moral Foreign Policy and “Reclaiming Patriotism.”

Tags Amitai Etzioni Authoritarianism Democracy Democratization Foreign policy of the United States Human rights Political positions of Joe Biden State Department

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