In the introduction to The Future of Human Rights, William F. Schulz laments that U.S. foreign policy, "so buoyant at the end of the Cold War, has returned to earth with a thud over the past few years. Among its crash victims has been American leadership in the struggle for human rights."
Although countless books have decried the impact of neoconservatism on America's standing in the world, far fewer have examined how the adherents to that movement, including those in the Bush administration, have damaged human rights themselves. The administration cited human rights abuses as justification for invading Iraq only after no weapons of mass destruction were discovered. But, according to Schulz, it seems likely that the WMDs and terror links were rationalizations of the wish to topple a regime for other reasons.
The extent to which the damage sustained over the past few years is the result of misappropriated principles may be debated, but the tragic result is that the United States has been handicapped in providing crucial human rights leadership—especially where such leadership is desperately needed.
The thirteen essays in this volume, by such notable scholars and activists as Philip Alston, Rachel Kleinfeld, George Lopez, John Shattuck, and Debora Spar, provide thematic assessments of the current state of global human rights programs as well as prescriptions for once again making the United States a respected and forceful proponent of human rights. Topics include democracy promotion, women's rights, refugee policy, religious freedom, labor standards, and economic, social, and cultural rights, among many others. Taken together, the essays converge on one overarching point: to attract the widest support, the U.S. commitment to universal human rights should be presented as reflecting the best of the American tradition.
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William F. Schulz served as Executive Director of Amnesty International USA from 1994 to 2006. He is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress; a Presidential Fellow at Simmons College in Boston; and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Wagner School of New York University. Schulz is author of two books on human rights: In Our Own Best Interest: How Defending Human Rights Benefits Us All and Tainted Legacy: 9/11 and the Ruin of Human Rights. He is the editor of The Phenomenon of Torture: Readings and Commentary, also published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
William F. Schulz
The great ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky was once asked how he managed to leap so high in the air. "The secret," he said, "is this. Most people, when they leap in the air, come down at once. The secret is to stay in the air a little before you return." U.S. foreign policy, so buoyant at the end of the Cold War, has returned to earth with a thud over the past few years and among its crash victims has been American leadership in the struggle for human rights.
Tome after tome has decried the impact of neoconservatism on America's standing in the world, her capacity to fight terrorism and her reputation for integrity. Far fewer analysts have examined how the neoconservative moment has done damage, perhaps lasting, to human rights themselves, often in the name of their promotion. Fewer still have described how the presuppositions of the human rights enterprise have aided and abetted that fiasco.
This volume of essays is intended to point the way out of the morass, at least as far as U.S. international human rights policy is concerned. It is intended as a blueprint for a new administration and a prescription for how the United States can reclaim the mantle of leadership in combating human rights abuses.
To trace that future path with confidence requires that we first understand how we got to where we find ourselves; what challenges now confront the human rights prospect; and how we will need to reconceptualize traditional approaches to human rights if we are to overcome those challenges.
That human rights are worth the effort may be a proposition that all but the most unreconstructed foreign policy "realists" would grant. Human rights have become what Michael Ignatieff has called "the lingua franca of global moral thought." Few world leaders, including the most repressive, fail to dress their regimes in its raiment. The Chinese government, with its hundreds of political prisoners, tens of thousands of people incarcerated without fair trials, persecution of the Falun Gong religious sect, and exorbitant use of the death penalty, claims that it "highly values the protection and promotion of the political, economic, social and cultural rights of its citizens." The Sudanese government, authors of the catastrophe in Darfur, tried to cast itself on the side of the angels by pronouncing the UN Human Rights Council "the conscience of humanity." And even Al Qaeda, according to Thomas Friedman, resists being labeled "genocide perpetrators" because it "affects their street appeal."
Such widespread endorsement might appear to give human rights the advantage. But paradoxically the absence of a reputable competing vision, of a full-throated defense of benevolent authoritarianism, for example, or an unreconstructed plea for privilege, has left human rights flabby, its meaning open to broad interpretation, a cloak of many colors, the possession of many masters, and hence vulnerable to co-optation. And no one has been more eager to claim its cover the last few years than the government of the United States.
A Perfect Storm
One would think Robert Kaplan would have learned his lesson. When his 1993 book Balkan Ghosts, with its fatalistic view of ethnic strife in the former Yugoslavia, was cited as having contributed to President Bill Clinton's initial reticence to intervene in the bloody conflict there, Kaplan was taken aback. "This is only a travel book," he contended, not designed to influence policy.
But in 2002 the Atlantic Monthly correspondent was back with another book which, though it may never have been read by the sitting president, captured widespread attention among the reigning foreign policy elite. Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos, coming quickly upon the heels of The Coming Anarchy (2000), which had warned ominously of "the dangers of peace," was a call to arms for American primacy. Citing with approval the historian E. H. Carr's observation that "Historically, every approach in the past to a world society has been the product of the ascendancy of a single Power," Kaplan opined that "We [the United States] and nobody else will write the terms for international society" and, just to make sure his readers got the point, put the sentence in italics—a sentence that captured the spirit of the times perfectly.
To be fair, the Bush administration's vision of American preeminence long predated Robert Kaplan. Indeed, Kaplan, a self-described realist, had never been smitten with undertaking wars in defense of human rights or pursuit of democracy. He had even warned in Warrior Politics, published a year before the invasion of Iraq, that "a single war with significant loss of American life . . . could ruin the public's appetite for internationalism."
The fact is that the "neoconservative moment" was a perfect storm: the result of a confluence of historic American predilections, an ascendant political philosophy, and a unique historic circumstance, all balanced on the shoulders of an ill-prepared president who saw history in simple terms and the future in millennial ones.
First, the predilections. When John Winthrop sailed off for the New World in March of 1630 with his band of Puritans, he did so well aware of his role as a New Moses leading a New Exodus. What the great historian of Puritanism, Perry Miller, called an "errand into the wilderness" was not prompted by persecution, however, as had been the case with the Pilgrims 10 years earlier. It was instead a proactive attempt to establish "a place of Cohabitation . . . under a due form of Government" based upon biblical polity. Such a "City upon a Hill," to use Winthrop's famous phrase, was to be not only a City offering its residents potential escape from corruption if they abided by virtue but, just as important, a City on a Hill, that is, a City so placed that it could be seen by others as a model of the New Jerusalem. "The eyes of all people are upon us," Winthrop declared, and, if we succeed, they shall say of later plantations "Lord, make it like that of New England."
The Puritans' mission, therefore, was both particular to themselves but universal as well. Naturally those most close at hand were early recipients of the colonists' ministrations. Several generations later Cotton Mather would conjecture that the Devil had intentionally placed the Indians on a continent uninhabited by Christians so that the Gospel of Jesus Christ could never reach their ears but that the arrival of the Puritans had outfoxed him. It was not the Indians, however, whom these first white settlers hoped most to impress and reform but the continent from which they had arrived. England and the rest of Europe were to be transformed by the new model of righteousness the Puritans embodied.
Fast forward 146 years. The Puritan community has long since been rent into a thousand pieces. No longer are the saints "visible"; no longer does religious passion spill in quite the same volume. John Locke has written his Two Treatises of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration. The colonies are ripe for independence and the bonds that hold the community together, the political principles that direct its course, are now derived far less from God than from Nature, unalienable rights bestowed by a Creator, to be sure, but grounded now in natural law.
Two things are worth noting, however. First, that the Declaration of Independence was not a mere litany of particular grievances by a particular community against a particular king. It was also a statement of precepts about government and consent and duty applicable to everyone everywhere and issued out a "decent respect for the opinions" not of Parliament or of the king or of the English populace but of "mankind." And second, that among the first order natural rights was liberty—a conviction hearkening back to the Puritans' revolt against the Prebyterial system of the Church of England and predicated upon the Christian doctrine of inherent human freedom, the notion that we may choose whether we deal falsely or faithfully with God. Winthrop had made it painfully clear that the success of the City on the Hill depended upon his cohort choosing wisely.
The American experience was from its roots characterized by a religious vision to be propagated far and wide and, as the explicitly sectarian nature of that vision diminished with the growth of pluralism and toleration, it transmogrified into a religiously tinged moral mission: to be a model of liberty, a champion of those who had been supplied by Nature with a yearning to be free but cast by political circumstances into chains.
In his recent book Dangerous Nation, the neoconservative historian Robert Kagan argues that "the United States has never been a status quo power; it has always been a revolutionary one, consistently expanding its influence in the world in ever-widening arcs," often by military means. We need not agree with every detail of Kagan's analysis (and certainly not with his reason for writing the book) to find truth in the claim that America has rarely been shy about proclaiming its values and model of government superior to others and offering a hand, if not a heel, to those in need of "guidance." The renowned church historian Martin Marty thinks it a telling convenience that Protestantism began to missionize the world, seeking converts and spreading its notions of civilization in the 1790s and years following, just as the new American nation was organizing itself and, in tandem with its most popular faith, spreading its reach westward and eventually beyond its continental bounds.
Certainly, once America had rid itself of the stain of slavery and entered the industrial age, it found itself well positioned, both ideologically and practically, to indulge its universalizing impulses and fulfill its moral destiny. What it sought, however, was far less physical transformation than moral, less a territorial empire than righteous territory. The best-selling book of 1885 was Congregational minister Josiah Strong's Our Country: Its Possible Future and Its Present Crisis, a plea to impose America's Christian values on the world. "We are the chosen people," Strong averred, picking up an echo from the earliest days of European settlement. God was "not only preparing in our Anglo-Saxon civilization the die with which to stamp the people of the earth but . . . also massing behind that die the mighty power with which to press it."
Two world wars, one fought explicitly to "make the world safe for democracy," would reinforce the mightiness of that power. Each would result as well in international institutions designed to modulate the unshackled reach of any one state. But neither war would sidetrack the United States from its fundamental conviction that a desire for liberty beat naturally in every human breast and that this country was uniquely positioned both to model it ourselves and help procure it for others.
These predilections, then, awaited but leaders disposed to exploit them and circumstances that allowed it. They found the former in aficionados of neoconservatism and the latter in a newly acquired enemy both identifiable and ferocious.
The origins of neoconservatism have been described and debated endlessly. I am less interested here in where they came from than what they mean. But in one respect their roots are important: neoconservatism was born out of what Nietzsche called ressentiment.
It is not surprising that the lambs should bear a grudge against the great birds of prey, but that is no reason for blaming the great birds of prey for taking the little lambs. And when the lambs say among themselves, "These birds of prey are evil, and he who least resembles a bird of prey, who is rather its opposite, a lamb,—should he not be good?" then there is nothing to carp with in this ideal's establishment, though the birds of prey may regard it a little mockingly, and maybe say to themselves, "We bear no grudge against them, these good lambs, we even love them: nothing is tastier than a tender lamb."
For Leo Strauss, a refugee from Nazi Germany long considered the intellectual progenitor of neoconservatism, the original birds of prey were obvious. But for Strauss and most especially for his followers the aviary grew larger and larger: political scientists who thought politics was a science; academic administrators who failed to stand up to radicals; "flat-souled" students, to use Allan Bloom's phrase from The Closing of the American Mind, whose world was "devoid of ideals"; the perpetrators of mass bourgeois culture; political leaders who failed to provide "moral clarity"; secular liberal elites certainly; internationalists of course; and relativists absolutely. Indeed, a special circle of hell was reserved for relativists (or what Strauss called "nihilists") who believed that nothing could be ultimately and absolutely justified. It was a sorry world we lived in.
But there was an antidote: natural right. At the beginning of his classic work, Natural Right and History, Strauss threw down the gauntlet: "To reject natural right is tantamount to saying that . . . what is right is determined exclusively by the legislators and the courts of the various countries. . . . [But] if principles are sufficiently justified by the fact that they are accepted by a society, the principles of cannibalism are as defensible and sound as those of civilized life." Let Nature be our guide. And no country was more intimately wedded to Nature as a guide to what is right, to natural "unalienable" rights, than America. America, not old, bloodied Europe, was capable of rescuing the world from the scourge of nihilism. But not just any kind of America: only a strong, proud, muscular America, informed by "moral clarity"—that phrase again—and prepared to seek "national greatness."
And how did a people achieve "greatness"? "Because mankind is intrinsically wicked," Strauss once wrote, "he has to be governed. Such governance can only be established, however, when men are united—and they can only be united against other people." In the face of a culture in decline, only a mortal enemy could unify a nation, call it back to its highest ideals, and invest it with transcendent meaning once again. As Robert Kaplan had put it in his 2000 essay "The Dangers of Peace": "Peace . . . leads to a preoccupation with presentness; the loss of the past and a consequent disregard of the future. That is because peace by nature is pleasurable, and pleasure is about momentary satisfaction. . . . Convenience becomes the vital element in society." No wonder neoconservatives, far from celebrating the end of the Cold War, found it so dangerous; no wonder Norman Podhoretz, often considered the father of contemporary neoconservatism, bewailed in the collapse of Communism the loss of a "defining foreign demon" and welcomed both the Persian Gulf and Iraq wars as opportunities for the United States to "remoralize" itself again. Faced with the evaporation of one global threat, they found solace, even promise, in the appearance of another. And be it Saddam or terrorism, the only way to defeat a world-historical menace was through the leveraging of a countervailing...
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