World Views
5:18 pm
Wed June 19, 2013

How The 1970s Changed The Role Of Human Rights In U.S. Foreign Policy

Jimmy Carter hosts a ceremony commemorating the 30th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 6 December 1978
Credit White House Staff Photographer / National Archives and Records Administration
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University of California, Berkeley historian Daniel Sargent says the 1970s were a turning point for American foreign policy.

“Prior to the '70s, the U.S. was very actively engaged in working to promote development and modernization within foreign countries in the developing world,” Sargent says. “And these efforts proved largely unsuccessful.”

Sargent says President Carter was the first, and last, president to make human rights a central policy issue. After Carter, the United States took a step back from actively promoting development and focused on maintaining an open system of international trade.

As economic interests dominated foreign relations, Sargent says non-governmental organizations like Amnesty International stepped in to fill the void with mixed results.

“[They] aspire to wield the force of unarmed global opinion as a sort of weapon on behalf of universal human rights,” Sargent says. “And this is an approach that struggles to achieve the outcomes that human rights enthusiasts hope that it will accomplish, but it does encourage some policymakers in the United States on both the Republican and Democratic sides of the partisan divide to take human rights more seriously.”

Although human rights remain important to policymakers, either as part of an underlying framework or as normative reference points, Sargent says foreign policy hasn’t been structured around them.

“It's very, very hard to operationalize foreign policy around human rights promotion as a strategic purpose because even within the United States there's not a whole lot of agreement as to what that would look like or comprise as a practical foreign policy agenda,” Sargent says.

According to Sargent, focusing on economic interests is much more straightforward than focusing on human rights, and it can have a similarly positive impact on global development.

Historian Daniel Sargent
Credit University of California, Berkeley

“The forces that produce consciousness of globalization as an economic phenomenon and consciousness of global human rights are closely analogous, if not identical,” Sargent says. “There is a kind of technological material dynamic underpinning both sets of developments. Innovations in communications technologies, for example, facilitate the integration of financial markets. They also facilitate the transmission of knowledge about human rights conditions within countries to well-intentioned activists in foreign countries who then agitate on behalf of human rights victims. So the underlying structural developments that produce these phenomena are, from a point of view, almost one and the same.”

U.S. foreign policy is changing under the Obama administration, though.

“I think under the George W. Bush administration we saw something like the apotheosis of an ideological approach to foreign policy that had its genesis in the 1970s,” Sargent says. “Obama, I would argue, has retreated considerably from that ideological approach to the world towards a more balanced, realistic, or Kissingerian approach.”  

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On the rise of nation-states and the role of globalization

There are a huge number of changes that have transformed the international system. First, I think, is the rise of the state system. In 1945 the foundational membership of the United Nations comprised about 50 countries. Today we have almost 200 countries that are part of the United Nations family of nation-states. That's one big change. Second change, I think, has to do with the rise of what we call globalization. The thick networks of trade and financial interconnection between nation-states that bind nation-states into common transnational communities of fate, if you will, are a hugely important development. It's made the nation-state less autonomous, less sovereign in some respects, than the classic model of Westphalian international relations would presume.

On the nature of poverty and prosperity

The first perspective, I think, would see poverty as a consequence or function of prosperity. In this view of things, the endurance of wide-scale human deprivation in the global south as a consequence of the affluence that we in the West enjoy. The second perspective, one which I have somewhat more affinity for myself, would see poverty not as a consequence of prosperity, but rather as an enduring, frustratingly enduring and stubborn, fact of human existence. You know, in a sense poverty is the natural condition of human kind. What we have to explain is prosperity. Why have some nations been able to escape the desperate trap of poverty while others have languished within it?

On the power of human rights movements today

It's evocative of the power that human rights have assumed that you even pose the question in those terms. Because at the end of the 1960s, for example, one might have been concerned about the ethical implications of the Vietnam War, many people were, but that question would probably not have been formulated in terms of human rights outcomes. We might have made specific reference the human consequences of the Indo-China War for, you know, the Vietnamese and their neighbors, but we likely would not have talked about human rights as a sort of global normative reference point against which foreign policy ought to be measured. The fact that we do so today, I think, is illustrative of the power that the human rights idea has come to assume. Of course the fact that we intermittently articulate human rights purposes as an overarching purpose of foreign policy does not mean that we always live up to those aspirations. They are aspirations, not a rigid code of conduct.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Daniel Sargent, welcome to World Views.

SARGENT: Thank you for having me.

GRILLOT: So you've written before about global history, basically, since 1945 or in the post-Cold War period. You've written about some of the changes that we've witnessed in that period of time. What would you say are some of the most significant changes we've seen in global history in the post-World War II period?

SARGENT: Okay. There are a huge number of changes that have transformed the international system. First, I think, is the rise of the state system. In 1945 the foundational membership of the United Nations comprised about 50 countries. Today we have almost 200 countries that are part of the United Nations family of nation-states. That's one big change. Second change, I think, has to do with the rise of what we call globalization. The thick networks of trade and financial interconnection between nation-states that bind nation-states into common transnational communities of fate, if you will, are a hugely important development. It's made the nation-state less autonomous, less sovereign in some respects, than the classic model of Westphalian international relations would presume. So those are two huge structural developments that have had tremendous repercussions for the way the international system works.

GRILLOT: So when you say repercussions, what exactly do you mean by that? Because you said in some of your work that during this period we've seen an interplay between forces of integration and disintegration and that that has come to define our globe. So is that what you mean by the repercussions?

SARGENT: Well, I think that's one of the repercussions. Now, this is not an original point. I think that the social theorist Benjamin Barber made that point very well when he described the conflict between integration and disintegration as a conflict between the forces of jihad, signifying disintegration, and McWorld, signifying integration. As a dialectical way of thinking about the large-scale processes that are making the world that we inhabit today, I think it's useful, but I don't think that it suffices to describe that dialectic as sort of the total framework for  understanding the complicated forces that make international relations today so very fraught. It omits important developments like nationalism, which remains a very definitive force, defining force, in international relations today, but it's not necessarily either an integrative or disintegrative development. It maybe exists somewhere between the two.

GRILLOT: So what about the issue of prosperity versus poverty? So during this period of time that you studied, the kind of history of the world, if you will, since the second World War, we've seen decolonization, we've seen globalization as you've mentioned, the rise of the modern state system, and we've seen, obviously, a tremendous growth in prosperity around the world. But we've also seen a significant continuance of poverty. So how do we make sense of these two views of the world, these two different perspectives on the world? So, on the one hand we were talking about disintegration and integration and now kind of prosperity and poverty.

SARGENT: Well, that's a terrific question. I actually think that's the most important question of all when we think about the problems that define this period of study, post-war international relations. And there are very different ways of viewing the problem and let me just crudely put forward two perspectives. The first perspective, I think, would see poverty as a consequence or function of prosperity. In this view of things, the endurance of wide-scale human deprivation in the global south as a consequence of the affluence that we in the West enjoy. The second perspective, one which I have somewhat more affinity for myself, would see poverty not as a consequence of prosperity, but rather as an enduring, frustratingly enduring and stubborn, fact of human existence. You know, in a sense poverty is the natural condition of human kind. What we have to explain is prosperity. Why have some nations been able to escape the desperate trap of poverty while others have languished within it? I think if we look at the post-war period as a whole, you know, all the way through to the present day, then this contemporary history -- it's a period of, what, about 65 years of history -- actually reveals some fairly encouraging, even optimistic, lessons. Over the past 65 years, the gaps between the haves and have-nots have narrowed considerably. Growth over the past two or three decades has been focused overwhelmingly outside of the advanced capitalist countries: in East Asia and in Sub-Saharan Africa more recently. In fact over the last decade Sub-Saharan Africa was the fastest growing region of the world.

GRILLOT: Who's responsible for that? Is there anyone who's responsible for that in terms of this optimistic view that we can take and the fact that this gap has narrowed between, if you will, the global north and the global south?

SARGENT: This is not a terribly original answer to the question, but I think the answer is simply development. Modernization.

GRILLOT: So in terms of foreign policy, then, and states that can have an impact on development around the world and to bring it back to the Western world. One of the things that you've spent a lot of time focusing on is American foreign policy, and particularly American foreign policy in the '70s as globalization was really heating up, if you will. You've mentioned how the United States suffered from some crises because of this, but then was kind of able to revitalize itself because of globalization. But what is it about the '70s that draws you to study American foreign policy of the '70s, and how is it that from that point on the United States has perhaps had anything to do with the perpetuation of prosperity or growth and development around the world?

SARGENT: Well that's a really interesting question. It's a difficult question. What drew me to the '70s was the change that the decade signified in the overarching priorities of U.S. foreign policy. Prior to the '70s, the U.S. was very actively engaged in working to promote development and modernization within foreign countries in the developing world. You know, Kennedy introduced the Alliance for Progress in Latin America. Similar kinds of initiatives were introduced relating to other regions of the world. And these efforts proved largely unsuccessful. Efforts by the United States to promote, or sort of speed up, development within the context of the foreign nation-state struggled to achieve the results that U.S. policymakers hoped that they will accomplish. Thereafter, from the '70s onward, the United States is actually much less engaged in working to promote development, certainly in working to promote development at the national scale. What the U.S. does do, which I think is useful, is it continues to exercise a rudimentary set of responsibilities for the sustenance of what you might call international economic order. And insofar as the preservation of a basically the liberal and open international trading system serves the purpose of global economic development, the United States warrants some credit for that.

GRILLOT: So, in addition to credit for this type of approach, and you've written extensively on the subject of globalization in American foreign policy, but you've also focused on human rights and American foreign policy. You've talked about how American foreign policies kind of rediscovered human rights as a central and fundamental aspect of its foreign policy, kind of a human rights doctrine that defines foreign policy. What do you mean by human rights serving as the center of foreign policy, and how does that square with the focus on globalization? Because many of us tend to think that you focus on one or the other, but not both and that they aren't necessarily mutually reinforcing. But apparently that isn't the case?

SARGENT: There's a lot there, so let me try to unpack some of this. First of all, can I clarify rediscovery? The reason that I use the word rediscovery rather than discovery is that the idea of universal human rights is not original to the 1970s. In fact, this is an idea that is articulated very early in the post-war order. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is a United Nations document, is signed in 1948, right at the beginning of the post-war era. But its aspirations languished for the first couple of decades after the Second World War, and in part that's because the obstacles to the realization of universal human rights are very substantial. Sovereignty, in principle, is a major, major obstacle. In a world of independent nation-states, each sovereign and presumably inviolable is own domestic affairs, how is the United Nations or the United States or any other entity supposed to do the work of human rights enforcement? It's a really difficult question. In the '70s a partial answer to that question is devised. Initially not by the United States, but by non-governmental organizations like Amnesty International that aspire to wield the force of unarmed global opinion as a sort of weapon on behalf of universal human rights. And this is an approach that struggles to achieve the outcomes that human rights enthusiasts hope that it will accomplish, but it does encourage some policymakers in the United States on both the Republican and Democratic sides of the partisan divide to take human rights more seriously. Of course, this is all happening in the context of an ongoing Cold War in which human rights also have an appeal as a sort of instrument for assailing the Soviet Union, which remains a notorious violator of human rights, particularly so far as the civil and political rights of its citizens are concerned. And it's in this complicated conjuncture that human rights become a priority for U.S. foreign policy. The breakthrough years are really in the middle of the 1970s: 1974, 1975, and 1976. These are the years in which Congress for the first time acts to legislate human rights into the legal framework governing the making and the implementation of U.S. foreign policy. Carter is the first president, maybe the last president, too, to really situate human rights at the center of his foreign policy agenda. For at least a couple of years, human rights do constitute something like an overarching strategic purpose for the Carter administration. It's also a very fuzzy strategic purpose, and the Carter administration quickly retreats from it towards a more traditional conception of Cold War foreign policy. Thereafter, human rights have remained important as a kind of ulterior framework of ethical or normative reference for foreign policy, but it's very, very hard to operationalize foreign policy around human rights promotion as a strategic purpose because even within the United States there's not a whole lot of agreement as to what that would look like or comprise as a practical foreign policy agenda.

GRILLOT: So these two, then, are or are not opposed to one another? Focused on globalization and economic growth and trade versus human rights.

SARGENT: No, I don't think they're opposed. I think that the forces that produce, you know, sort of consciousness of globalization as an economic phenomenon and consciousness of global human rights are closely analogous, if not identical. I mean, there is a kind of technological material dynamic underpinning both sets of developments. Innovations in communications technologies, for example, facilitate the integration of financial markets. They also facilitate the transmission of knowledge about human rights conditions within countries to well-intentioned activists in foreign countries who then agitate on behalf of human rights victims. So the underlying structural developments that produce these phenomena are, you know, from a point of view, almost one and the same.

GRILLOT: But the United States has somewhat of a mixed record on human rights, does it not? I mean, particularly from this period, the '70s, onward. And even today, we struggle with maintaining our relations with others on the basis of human rights and putting that front and center versus other aspects such as trade and open markets and realist perspectives of power and position.

SARGENT: No, I think that's absolutely right, but I think that it's evocative of the power that human rights have assumed that you even pose the question in those terms. Because at the end of the 1960s, for example, one might have been concerned about the ethical implications of the Vietnam War, many people were, but that question would probably not have been formulated in terms of human rights outcomes. We might have made specific reference the human consequences of the Indo-China War for, you know, the Vietnamese and their neighbors, but we likely would not have talked about human rights as a sort of global normative reference point against which foreign policy ought to be measured. The fact that we do so today, I think, is illustrative of the power that the human rights idea has come to assume. Of course the fact that we intermittently articulate human rights purposes as an overarching purpose of foreign policy does not mean that we always live up to those aspirations. They are aspirations, not a rigid code of conduct.

GRILLOT: So the Obama doctrine, then, if there is one today, human rights are fundamental to that?

SARGENT: I think Obama has been much more cautious on this issue than his predecessor. I think under the George W. Bush administration we saw something like the apotheosis of an ideological approach to foreign policy that had its genesis in the 1970s. Obama, I would argue, has retreated considerably from that ideological approach to the world towards a more balanced, realistic, or Kissingerian approach, call it what you will.

GRILLOT: Well, thank you so much Daniel Sargent for joining us today. Very interesting historical discussion.

SARGENT: Thank you for having me.

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