The Bush Administration and Human Rights

Human rights has been a central rhetorical foreign policy concern of successive U.S. presidents since the Carter administration. For all that, the international community remains deeply ambivalent about the American government’s self-appointed role as the world’s largest human rights organization. Many see self-interest behind U.S. claims to be upholding high moral principles, and they also see hypocrisy in the U.S. government’s reluctance to be bound by the same instruments it is so ready to apply to others.

Domestically, support for U.S. advocacy of human rights around the world is wide but shallow. In policy debates, other priorities easily supersede concern for human rights, if they can be portrayed as essential to national security. Congress, in particular, has shown itself to be leery of the multilateralism and loss of sovereignty required by accession to international human rights treaties. The vehement congressional opposition to U.S. accession to the treaty establishing the international criminal court, left the U.S. isolated from its western allies, but epitomized mainstream conservative knee-jerk hostility to multilateral commitments. Such attitudes run deep among George W. Bush’s core supporters, and we can expect little innovation from the new administration in improving the U.S.’s poor record of accession to, and compliance with international human rights instruments. The president-elect’s own lamentable record on the death penalty creates an immediate distance between him and the views of the international human rights movement.

Concern for human rights does not shape U.S. foreign policy. More often than not, it is a handy pretext used to dress up expedient policy choices or even to mask the pursuit of narrow self-interest.

None of this is likely to change with a new president. The Bush administration will not renounce the American government’s stated support for freedom and democracy around the world, nor will it hesitate to couch its arguments in human rights terms when it sees advantage in doing so. Indeed, with a national security team seasoned by its experiences in the cold war under previous Republican administrations, we can expect an intensification of the human rights criticism of remaining nominally Communist states like China, North Korea, and Cuba.

And yet, it would be wrong to suggest that there is nothing to be lost for the human rights movement with the transition from the Clinton administration. The annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices are now, happily, largely free of the political distortions, favorable to key U.S. allies, that marred the reports in earlier years. It is to be hoped that the record for truth-telling in the Country Reports, established under the outgoing administration, will be maintained by the new one.

The information available in the Country Reports has provided substance for ongoing bilateral human rights dialogues with governments around the world. It enables U.S. officials at all levels and in all departments of government to read from the same script when addressing human rights questions. Such sustained engagement with governments concerning human rights issues, much of it behind the scenes, is one of the most effective methods for promoting positive change. It needs to be maintained and encouraged in a new administration.

The defining aspect of the Clinton administration’s foreign policy has been the centrality of economic issues. Human rights has had an important place within this policy emphasis, with the promotion of the ideas that political freedom will be enhanced by economic liberalization and that the rule of law and the protection of basic freedoms are the foundation of a successful economy. Overt promotion of these tenets increased after the bailout of the Mexican peso in 1995, and especially after the Asian economic crisis of 1997. In these cases, an explicit connection was made between corrupt and despotic governments and faltering economies. Through this approach, we have seen human rights issues brought into discussions of trade and economic relations as never before.

The extent to which the Bush administration will remain committed to the gospel of free trade and open markets, with its attendant emphasis on rule-of-law reforms, is an open and crucial question that will impact human rights in the next four years. National Security Adviser-designate Condoleezza Rice, Vice President-elect Dick Cheney, and other senior Bush foreign policy advisers are viewed as Kissingerian realists, in that they will exert U.S. power to protect U.S. national interests but not for other reasons, like promoting human rights.

The novelty of the Clinton administration’s approach was that the spread of human rights concepts–like the independence of the judiciary, the rule of law, and respect for basic freedoms of expression and association–became explicitly tied to a vital U.S. national interest, the expansion of global trade. It would seem perverse for a new Republican administration to turn its back on a policy that has made its constituents in the business world so rich, especially since the isolationist Buchananite wing of the party has surely lost credibility as the Dow has climbed and growth has been sustained despite (or perhaps because of) NAFTA and the WTO.

One area where a change in human rights policy is most likely to be visible is in the area of humanitarian intervention. During the campaign, one of the few distinctions drawn by George W. Bush between his foreign policy and that of the Clinton administration involved Bush’s reluctance to be the world’s policeman and his skepticism about peacekeeping operations. The argument that U.S. forces are too thinly spread continues to be made by the president-elect and his national security team.

It seems questionable, on cold reflection, whether the Bush administration is seriously considering substantial change in the deployments of U.S. forces. But we are likely to see a change in the way existing and new deployments are spoken of. Whereas the Clinton administration was wont to make a virtue out of necessity, speaking in sometimes grandiose terms of preventive intervention or nation building, we are likely to see the Bush administration doing much the same thing for hard-nosed reasons of national interest.

The cause of human rights has benefited from the intellectual commitment of several senior Clinton administration officials who have championed human rights, not only morally but also as an effective instrument of policy. John Shattuck and Harold Koh, drawing on their experience as distinguished human rights practitioners, prior to joining the government, brought a new prestige to the key position of assistant secretary of state for human rights democracy and labor under president Clinton. President-elect Bush’s appointments to succeed them, and other key mid-level appointments in the state, justice, and commerce departments, as well as in the national security council, will determine whether this intellectual leadership will be sustained. It remains to be seen whether president Bush will be inclined to appoint human rights advocates to key positions in his administration (In that regard, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice seem to compare unfavorably with Sandy Berger and Madeleine Albright.), and whether the grand experiment in promoting human rights reform to foster economic progress will continue.