Posted by: sean | September 1, 2006

A human rights-centered foreign policy

The American Prospect has an interesting article by Spencer Ackerman from The New Republic on using the promotion of human rights instead of democracy promotion as a guiding principle for American foreign policy.

What liberal democracy-promoters want to see in foreign closed societies is more precisely located in the advance of human rights: the protection of basic human dignity, freedom, and justice. Indeed, liberal democracy-promoters frequently criticize their neoconservative cousins for their lack of concern with the social protections of civil and legal rights. But it’s time to uncouple human rights from democracy, and recognize that democracy has value only to the degree to which it safeguards human rights — which is to say the degree to which democracy is liberal. Democracy in that respect is a fine and worthy thing, but the emphasis for the United States and for liberalism should be on the end, not the means.

While I’m not convinced that democracy and human rights can be totally seperated, the latter does seem to be a more attainable, and perhaps immediately, more urgent matter. But what really bothers me is how this affects pursuing American interests. He goes on later to talk (but only very briefly) about times when American interests and human rights are not compatible:

The test for America abroad should be: to what degree do American policies advance or diminish these human rights? And, in the unfortunate but inevitable cases of conflict between human rights and American interests, to what degree does subordinating either result in the best balance of each? Answering these two questions provides the best chance of keeping both America and liberalism from sliding into Manicheanism, messianism, naivete, or amorality.

This seems a little too vague for my taste. What should the US do in places like Kazhakstan, where American interests point to supporting the murderous dictator Nazarbayev, because sits atop he largest crude oil reserves in the Caspian Sea region? Other examples include the relationship that the US maintains with other dictators with easy access to cheap energy.

This is a difficult question that no one really seems to want to answer. Of course energy is a valid and necessary part of policy, but where should the US draw the line between securing oil supplies and promoting human rights? It should seem obvious that in most parts of the world, promoting human rights is going to be counterprductive to acquiring cheap energy. So then, should human rights only be limited to nations that don’t have any strategic worth to the US?

I don’t really know the answer to that answer, but as a humanitarian, I feel that the US is strong enough and rich enough to “take one for the team,” promoting human rights even when it contradicts American interests. But maybe that’s just youthful naïveté.

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