Putting Human Rights First
By Aryeh Neier
On his recent 12-day trip to Asia, President Trump made clear that the United States has abandoned its 40-year-old policy, which his six predecessors followed in varying degrees, of attempting to promote human rights internationally.
By not promoting human rights, the United States has harmed itself. This is apparent if one looks back at what was accomplished during the four decades that preceded the Trump administration. Though multiple factors contributed to the favorable international developments of that era—and it is usually impossible to demonstrate a direct cause and effect relationship between American policies and developments in other countries—the championing of rights, and the withdrawal of support for repressive regimes, played a part in many peaceful transitions to democracy.
But if President Trump were to try to promote human rights internationally, he probably would not get very far because his administration has not demonstrated respect for human rights at home. He is hostile to a free and independent press. He has sought to prohibit travelers on religious grounds. He has identified some participants in a neo-Nazi demonstration as “very fine people.” And so on.
These actions do not convey the impression to the rest of the world that the United States respects rights, and they make it seem that the rest of the world would not care if the United States were to criticize repressive regimes.
The U.S. government’s decision in the 1970s to espouse human rights internationally was rooted, in part, in self-interest. The United States’ global image had deteriorated greatly during the Vietnam War and reached a low-point by the war’s end.
International public opinion excoriated the United States for inflicting great cruelties on Vietnam through such actions as the massacre at My Lai, the bombing of the cities of North Vietnam, the use of napalm, and the extension of the war into Cambodia and Laos. On the other hand, despite its immense resources and great firepower, America was defeated.
In combination, revulsion against American practices in Vietnam and the demonstration that American military might was unavailing brought the country’s reputation to a low point at a time when it was engaged in a worldwide struggle for hearts and minds with the Soviet Union.
In embracing the promotion of human rights, the United States provided a moral underpinning for its foreign policy that did much to rehabilitate its international reputation. Shortly after the Vietnam War ended, American negotiators and a few of their European allies succeeded in incorporating human rights provisions in the 1975 Helsinki Accords.
The Soviet Union went along because it did not recognize their significance, and because it was eager to negotiate an agreement that seemed to confirm the boundaries in Eastern Europe that marked its control of its satellites in the region.
Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev failed to realize that the combination of an American foreign policy that promoted human rights, and language in the Helsinki Accords that helped to legitimize the development of a human rights movement in Eastern Europe, would contribute to the fall of communism in the region. The collapse of the Communist governments in Eastern Europe brought with it the end of the Cold War.
The United States’ human rights policy also contributed to the collapse of military dictatorships in several Latin American and Asian countries. The United States has been able to count on most of the governments that emerged in both regions, from Chile to South Korea, as reliable allies and as valuable trading partners.
During his trip to Asia, President Trump praised himself for vigorously promoting his “America first” policies, which did not include the expression of any reservations about Xi Jinping’s repressive rule in China or Rodrigo Duterte’s murderous practices in the Philippines. Neither leader probably has any complaints.
But Chinese and Filipino citizens who are committed to the rule of law may be less pleased. They might like to see an American president put American values first: that is, the values set forth in the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the now discarded American policy of promoting human rights internationally.
Aryeh Neier is president emeritus of the Open Society Foundations.