Sitrep: Human Rights and the Image of America Abroad
On June 24, former President Jimmy Carter published an op-ed in the New York Times on the United States’ weak adherence to human rights since the turn of the century. Carter posits that America’s turn from human rights “began after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and has been sanctioned and escalated by bipartisan executive and legislative actions, without dissent from the general public.” He then says that “the widespread abuse of human rights over the last decade has been a dramatic change from the past.”1
The primary problem with former President Carter’s argument is that America’s abuse of human rights did not begin after 9/11. As James Peck observed, Carter made precisely this argument at the start of his own presidency in response to the Vietnam War. Without directly mentioning human rights violations in Vietnam (as well as Cambodia and Laos), Carter sought to restore America’s tarnished image by emphasizing its commitment to human rights—“our commitment to them is absolute,” as he said in his inaugural address in 1977. Peck noted that former president Carter’s emphasis on human rights had “ideological value” and “reinvigorated a vocabulary of power suitable to extending American global dominance after the crises of the Vietnam years.”2
It’s reasonable to say, then, that former President Carter’s recent op-ed hopes to again reinvigorate America’s international reputation. After all, he concludes his op-ed with these words: “As concerned citizens, we must persuade Washington to reverse course and regain moral leadership according to international human rights norms that we had officially adopted as our own and cherished throughout the years.”3
Similar calls were made prior to Barack Obama’s presidency. In 2008, Samantha Power (now President Obama’s Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs) argued that President George W. Bush’s successor “will have to undo many of the policies that contribute to the perception of the United States as a rogue nation and speak out publicly against the past harms inflicted and the past blunders made in America’s name.”4 She anticipated doing so would help restore American legitimacy. Writing for the Center for American Progress, William F. Schultz argued that, “when done well, the utilizing of international human rights standards can add significant value to domestic social justice agendas and it will encourage activists, opinion leaders, policymakers, legislators, and administration officials to think in those terms.”5
In my estimation, Carter’s call will not improve America’s image abroad so long as American emphasizes and promotes human rights primarily to serve its national interests. As I’ve argued regarding Burma and China,6 human rights should be an end in itself, not an end meant to improve a nation’s reputation in the international arena. Otherwise, human rights risk being devalued—and that would be an egregious error.
1 Jimmy Carter, “A Cruel and Unusual Record,” New York Times 24 June 2012
2 James Peck, Ideal Illusions: How the U.S. Government Co-opted Human Rights (New York: Metropolitan, 2010), pp. 44-47. Former President Carter’s inaugural address (1977) can be read here. The sentence which Peck quoted in part reads, in full, as follows: “Our commitment to human rights must be absolute, our laws fair, our natural beauty preserved; the powerful must not persecute the weak, and human dignity must be enhanced.”
3 Carter, ibid.
4 Samantha Power, “Legitimacy and Competence,” pp. 138-139, in To Lead the World: American Strategy After the Bush Doctrine, ed. Melvyn P. Leffler and Jeffrey W. Legro (New York: Oxford UP, 2008), pp. 133-156.
5 William F. Schultz, “The Power of Justice: Applying international human rights standards to American domestic practices,” Center for American Progress (June 2009), p. 3
6 See “Burma’s Saffron Revolution, Interventionism, and Human Rights in the Emerging New World Order,” 22 October 2011