It is a curious paradox of contemporary politics that the left and right share much in common in their respective understandings of human rights.
Consider a remark by former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young: “We must recognize that [the Soviets] are growing up in circumstances different from ours. They have, therefore, developed a completely different concept of human rights.” Addressing a U.N. Commission on Human Rights on which some of the world’s leading despots sat, the U.S. Ambassador said: “I see my country as vulnerable as anybody else’s around the table.”
In apparent reaction to this left-wing view, our current Ambassador, Jeane Kirlcpatrick, has written that the Carter Administration’s purism
leads to an overriding concern with purity of intentions [emphasis in original]. When the morality of motives is more important than the consequences of our acts, we will not feel too concerned about creating a totalitarian tyranny, provided that we “meant well.”
She hoped that the Reagan Administration, wiser than its predecessor, “will take the cure of history, which is nothing more or less than the cure of reality.” She concluded by emphasizing that America’s freedom is “rooted . . . ultimately in our rights as Englishmen.”
Yet, for all her apparent disagreement with the Carter policies, Ambassador Kirkpatrick shares some basic philosophical assumptions with them: First, the rather Kantian notion that “intentions” alone define moral actions; and second, an appeal to “history” for guidance on foreign policy, especially with regard to rights. Neither the Kirkpatrick nor the Carter view seems to have considered the idea that the core of morality is the virtue of prudence, which properly relates eternal truths to temporal circumstances. Neither entertains the possibility that the “cure” for faulty policy is to seek guidance from “nature” rather than “history.” Both have abandoned the natural rights tradition of the American Founders in favor of “human rights.” To be fair, Ambassador Kirkpatrick now seems to have developed a deeper interpretation of human rights drawn from the United States’ true natural rights tradition.
Given such a perplexing state of affairs, the anthology under review provides some timely thoughts on the subject of rights and our foreign policy. Written by a group of friends who studied political philosophy seriously, it is dedicated to the memory of the late Victor Baras, a young teacher who passed away eight years ago. Baras was intensely concerned about the theory and practice of human rights, and it was proper to offer this volume to his memory. He was also an exacting scholar and so could not have accepted in toto the arguments of all the authors since they are not entirely in agreement among themselves. Some essays are clear and illuminating, while others only deepen our perplexity. They deal with theoretical and practical, historical and contemporary aspects of human rights and politics. The order of analysis here will proceed from the most persuasive to the most problematic.
Claremont McKenna College Professor James H. Nichols ably summarizes the entire volume in his concluding essay with the understated and careful clarity that marks his scholarship. He rightly maintains that human rights are most threatened by our “forgetfulness” of their meaning, and his article strives to recall the strengths along with the problems of the human rights doctrine.
The only selection centrally concerned with a domestic problem, the essay on “affirmative action” by Kenyon College Professor Fred Baumann (who has edited a book on human rights) is the clearest, most thoughtful piece in this book. His understanding of human rights reflects profound judgment on the relationship between theory and practice. If human rights demand equal treatment of individuals before the law, “affirmative action” clearly contradicts that demand by calling for preferential treatment; i.e., privilege, on the basis of race, gender, religion, ethnic group, etc. The only criterion which ultimately determines which group is entitled to such privileges is raw political power.
Baumann’s concern for the threat posed by the principles underlying “affirmative action” stems from the fragility of consent in liberal democracy. Huge majorities of Americans, including the supposed beneficiaries of these programs, oppose them. As a practical matter, there is much to be concerned about: Baumann cites the case of a Carter Administration official who returned from the People’s Republic of China praising almost every aspect of their school system, including its ideological and class discrimination against the children of “bourgeois” parents. United States education, subject to popular opinion, is characterized by “confusion and near-hysteria,” she charged. Bureaucracy always rests uneasy under the need for consent; theories justifying preferential treatment simply give impatient bureaucrats new reasons to disregard democratically determined policy and ultimately to revolutionize the regime. Baumann’s intention in this article is to strengthen democracy and human rights by reminding the reader that accomplishments, talents, and virtues are the only legitimate standards in a polity of equal opportunity.
The essay by State Department official Charles Fairbanks on the British suppression of the slave trade in the nineteenth century shows a successful human rights policy in practice. The decades-long policy of Britain to terminate international slave trading could not have succeeded without enormously superior naval power. Britain’s ultimate success demonstrates to even the fainthearted that military superiority, reputation for strength, and the will to project power are the necessary conditions for advancing the common good of mankind around the globe.
Wall Street Journal Editorial Board member James Ring Adams’s article on the Helsinki process is a twentieth century analogue to Fairbanks’s essay. Decisive U.S.-Western European military superiority has long since vanished, and with it went the possibility of enforcing a human rights policy on reluctant regimes. Moreover, our century’s understanding of the meaning of human rights has been clouded by the historicist reinterpretation which superadded economic, social, and cultural rights to the original understanding of rights as natural and political. The Helsinki process did not come close to saving Poland from the Soviet-inspired coup d’etat in 1979. Perhaps Helsinki has elevated the world’s awareness of the rights of man, but the question is whether, absent decisive strength and the will to act, that awareness can lead to anything beyond a certain smug moralism among the democracies.
Cornell University Kremlinologist Myron Rush, on the other hand, shows that the Carter Administration’s human rights policy toward the Soviet Union succeeded neither in moderating that regime, internally weakening it, nor transforming it. President Carter’s policy was vague and flawed because it was simply an alternative to anti-Communism. It arose from both the President’s moralism and the perceived need for a different foreign policy after our Vietnam debacle. Rush is skeptical about the whole idea of basing foreign policy on human rights. Yet he concedes that President Carter’s early human rights rhetoric did focus the world’s attention on “evil” Soviet domestic policies, thus damaging Soviet prestige, embarrassing their apologists, and gaining “not insubstantial” new respect for the United States abroad. These are not small gains, and indeed the Carter emphasis on human rights could be viewed as preliminary to the Reagan Administration’s effort to combine anti-Communism with concern for human rights violations. Rush moderates his opening remark by concluding that any sustained U.S. foreign policy must have a “moral foundation.” But if that foundation is not concern for human rights, he does not offer any other.
The article by Defense Department official Abram Shulsky raises further doubts about the practical importance of human rights emphasis in foreign policy. One conceivable solution to East-West conflict might be sought in revising the post-Thirty Years’ War maxim, cuius regio eius religio, to mean, roughly, every state its own ideology. The difficulty here is that Marxist-Leninist totalitarianism denies toleration in principle. Marxist society only comes into its own as a universal global imperium, after having crushed every class enemy.
This essay leaves us in the same quandary as the previous one: Threatened by a totalitarian regime which is certain of its triumph in existential history, we are yet deprived of any “self-evident truth” at the basis of our democratic faith in human rights. It is true that liberal democracies cannot be created everywhere in an instant. And it is reasonable to recognize that Soviet totalitarianism aims to overthrow decent governments throughout the world. Anti-Communism then is a key aspect-but only one aspect-of a comprehensive foreign policy.
Both Rush and Shulsky are eager to reject Jimmy Carter’s “moralism.” But by rejecting the notion of human rights itself as either “relativistic” or “ideological,” they apparently have nothing left to substitute for it. Both articles leave U.S. policy under a cloud of pessimism.
Carnes Lord, formerly of the National Security Council staff, transforms Shulsky’s doubts about human rights into a formula for near-paralysis. Lord worries that Third World peoples do not accept Western-style liberalism. Primitive nations regard human rights legalism as subversive of their moral basis, preventing their governments from regulating morality through such means as censorship or other restraints on personal liberty. Therefore we need a “redefinition” of human rights purged of “liberal, democratic, and capitalist elements.” This means concentrating on “civil rights”-yet even these must be “redefined” so as to be recognized by a broad variety of regimes. Lord clearly has deep reservations about the value of liberalism and Western progress for non-Western peoples; we may even wonder whether his reservations extend to the West itself. In fact, it is hard to avoid concluding that he, like Rousseau, fails to make the elementary and obvious distinction between civilization and barbarism. Surely one mark of civilized people is their acknowledgment of human rights, while barbarians typically ignore the difference between the human and the nonhuman. An American foreign policy that did not advance civilization in preference to barbarism would be a curious policy indeed.
The essay by University of Toronto Professors Clifford Orwin and Thomas Pangle takes the Lord argument even further. Had Gibbon concluded his Decline and Fall by commending the martial virtues of Christianity, we might be no more surprised than by these authors’ call for a “principled” synthesis of the American human rights tradition with Rousseauian and Kantian moral thought. The learning evident in this tour de force is broad; yet rarely has the difference between scholarship and wisdom been so clear.
The essay begins unobjectionably by stating that the meaning of human rights turns on the meaning of “human.” They articulate the origins of human rights doctrines in the low, calculating philosophy of Hobbes and Locke, ascribing the American tradition to these early moderns. Rousseau and Kant “transform” human rights by historicizing them, elevating them morally, and rendering them more “sublime.” This sublimity generates the desire to advance the cause of human rights internationally. But have our authors forgotten the words of Jefferson, hardly a Kantian, on the American natural rights teaching?
May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. . . . All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man.
Curiously, the central section of this essay concedes that Kant is to blame for moralism and utopianism, and for placing liberal regimes on the defensive against Marxist and other totalitarianisms, which the authors admit are themselves transformed versions of Kantian thought. Still, the American human rights tradition is said to be weighted too heavily by self-interest and is insufficiently “sublime” to win the world to its cause. They argue that the only way to save liberalism from either Marxism or moral relativism is to Kantianize the American tradition.
The authors thus ignore these facts among others:
(a) A Kantianized foreign policy was the unique achievement of Woodrow Wilson, epitomized in his League of Nations and the Fourteen Points. Wilson’s formalistic principle of self-determination, applied to Europe in complete disregard of political prudence, laid the foundations of the Second World War.
(b) Any regime is likely to be weakened, not strengthened, by diluting the vitality of its principles with others that are antithetical. The wish to overcome our foreign policy weaknesses by “historicizing” the original principles of natural rights-making them part of a historical development-would make Americans more tolerant of our most dangerous Marxist enemy, They propose curing vertigo by jumping off a cliff.
The grandeur of regimes is measured best by the greatness of the character types which they generate. Abraham Lincoln revitalized and ennobled the American human rights tradition from within, by strengthening the connection between those rights and the twin political principles of nature: equality and liberty. Lincoln followed the Founding Fathers in making self-interest coincide with duty as far as possible.
No genuine understanding of human rights can stand with one foot planted in nature and the other in history. The idea of human rights requires the same cosmic support needed by the philosophic, or pious ways of life in order to make them choiceworthy. One cannot help noticing that in their search for a noble or sublime foundation for human rights, these two authors never mention a Creator or Supreme Being. Yet the Declaration of Independence makes no fewer than four references to such a Being. And Jefferson, condemning that totalitarian denial of human rights known as chattel slavery, asked, “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God?”
Having begun by asking what it means to be human, our authors conclude by recommending the “sublime” morality of Immanuel Kant. Kant summarized his categorical imperative as follows: “Act as if the maxim of thy action were to become by thy will a universal law of nature” (Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals, II ): Let every man act like a god.