The Politics of Human Rights
There’s an ideological struggle that has been in progress for decades between the Communist nations on the one hand and the democratic nations on the other. Mr. Brezhnev and his predecessors have never refrained from expressing their view when they disagreed with some aspect of social or political life in the free world. And I think we have a right to speak out openly when we have a concern about human rights wherever those abuses occur.
March 25, 1977
It is as simple as that. What needs to be explained is not why the United States has raised this standard, but why it has taken so long. Anthony Lewis remarks of the President:
He is giving not just Americans but people in the West generally a sense that their values are being asserted again, after years of silence in the face of tyranny and brutality.
But again, what needs to be explained is how those “years of silence” came about, and what they signify. For there were reasons, and deep ones, and they could reassert themselves far more readily than any—perhaps especially the President—might suppose.
Human rights as an issue in foreign policy was by no means central to Jimmy Carter’s campaign for the Presidency. It was raised in the Democratic platform drafting committee, and at the Democratic convention, but in each instance the Carter representatives were at best neutral, giving the impression of not having heard very much of the matter before and not having any particular views.
This is understandable enough, for by 1976 those “years of silence” had done their work. As a tactical or strategic concern of foreign policy, human rights had disappeared so completely from the councils of the West that a newcomer to the field might well never have heard the issue even discussed. Given our celebrated penchant for promptly forgetting even the most recent history, it may serve to record just how nearly total this blackout on human rights had become.
On November 12, 1975, as Permanent Representative at the United Nations, I introduced to the Third Committee of the General Assembly a United States proposal for a worldwide amnesty for political prisoners. The General Assembly, our delegation argued, had already that year taken two important steps in such a direction. A resolution had been adopted calling for unconditional amnesty for all political prisoners in South Africa. The United States had supported that resolution. Further, a resolution had been adopted calling for amnesty for all political prisoners in Chile. The United States had supported that resolution as well. But, we now asked, was there any reason to stop there? There were 142 members of the UN. Were we not all bound by the same standards that bound Chile and South Africa? There were grounds for a concern with universality in this matter which struck us with special force:
The first is that the selective morality of the United Nations in matters of human rights threatens the integrity not merely of the United Nations, but of human rights themselves. There is no mystery in this matter. Unless standards of human rights are seen to be applied uniformly and neutrally to all nations, regardless of the nature of their regimes or the size of their armaments, unless this is done, it will quickly be seen that it is not human rights at all which are invoked when selective applications are called for, but simply arbitrary political standards dressed up in the guise of human rights. From this perception it is no great distance to the conclusion that in truth there are no human rights recognized by the international community.
This concern was not allayed by examining the list of sponsors of the resolutions already adopted on South Africa and Chile According to the Freedom House Comparative Survey of Freedom, no fewer than 23 of the sponsors of the South African resolution and 16 of the sponsors of the Chilean resolution were countries which held political prisoners themselves.
Moreover, at the other end of the spectrum, but in a discernibly consistent pattern, that same General Assembly had adopted resolutions denouncing our own democracy for violation of human rights, and denouncing the Israeli democracy on the same score. Thus we came to the second of our concerns:
This is the concern not only that the language of human rights is being distorted and perverted; it is that the language of human rights is increasingly being turned in United Nations forums against precisely those regimes which acknowledge some or all of its validity and they are not, I fear, a majority of the regimes in this United Nations. More and more the United Nations seems only to know of violations of human rights in countries where it is still possible to protest such violations.
Let us be direct. If this language can be turned against one democracy, why not all democracies? Are democracies not singular in the degree to which at all times voices will be heard protesting this injustice or that injustice? If the propensity to protest injustice is taken as equivalent to the probability that injustice does occur, then the democracies will fare poorly indeed.
Now it might be supposed that the totalitarian nations would have gone to great lengths to suppress this American initiative. Not at all. There was no need. The other democratic nations did it for them.
There is a “Western” caucus of sorts at the UN. Somnolent in most matters, it was roused to decisive action by the threat which the American resolution presented to the peace of the UN. A meeting was called. We were asked to explain ourselves. We said we were worried about the perversion of the language of human rights and its transformation into a weapon against democracy. We also said that we thought it a good idea for the democratic world to regain the ideological initiative after the defeat we had just suffered over the Zionism-racism resolution. The explanation was greeted with a cold dismay that on the edges verged into anger. It was quickly agreed that if the resolution were somehow to pick up sponsors and to pass, the caucus would immediately insist on a formal undertaking to define the term “political prisoner.” I asked: would this be carried out along the lines of the recently completed exercise to define “aggression”? Yes. But that, I said, had taken from 1951 to 1974, nearly a quarter-century. Yes. But our resolution called for amnesty, a voluntary act of governments. Inasmuch as no one would be telling governments who their political prisoners were, no formal definition was necessary. The response remained cold: the other democracies would not join in sponsoring our resolution. And there the matter ended.
Two points essential to an understanding of the issue of human rights and its political meaning are to be seen in this episode. The first is that the issue of human rights is nothing new to international politics in this age. To the contrary, as defined by the totalitarian nations—led in this as in so much else by the Soviet Union, no matter what other issues may divide them at one time or another—the issue of human rights has long been at the center of international politics. In fact, from the time the Soviets commenced to be so hugely armed that their “peace” campaigns lost credibility, and Khrushchev opted for Russian involvement in “liberation” struggles, this issue has been acquiring greater and greater salience. Which is to say that in human-rights terms the Western democracies have been attacked without letup. The second point is that the Western democracies, having allowed themselves to be placed on the defensive, finally ceased almost wholly to resist. In the language of diplomatic instructions, this lack of resistance was known as “danger limitation.” In truth it was something very like capitulation, a species of what Jean-François Revel has called “Finlandization from within.”
If anything is now to come of our initiative in human rights, these points will have to be far better understood. It needs to be understood, for example, that it was a British Labor government which was primarily behind the move in the Western caucus to disown the United States amnesty proposal. Earlier Labor governments would not in all probability have acted in this way. It was said of Ernest Bevin, Britain’s first postwar Foreign Secretary, that he regarded Communism as a dissident faction of the Transport and General Workers Union—the point being that such familiarity bred contempt. By the mid-70’s, a different kind of familiarity was at work. The Labor party in October 1976, for example, could invite the likes of Boris Ponomarev—head of the international department of the Soviet Communist party and a notorious vintage Stalinist—to London on a “fraternal” visit and arrange to have him received by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary of a Labor government.
What was true of Britain was true of the West in general. Democratic regimes and values were under totalitarian assault in every region of the world, and resistance was everywhere weakening. The great exception was Israel, where Dr. Johnson’s adage that the prospect of hanging wonderfully concentrates the mind still seemed to apply. In the West, however, the preferred contrivance for dealing with the prospect of hanging was denial. A stunning instance of just such denial was the Western response to the 1975 resolution of the UN General Assembly equating Zionism with racism. In this case, denial took the form of a refusal to recognize the extent to which Soviet inspiration lay behind the resolution.
A long-established propaganda technique of the Soviet government has been to identify those it would destroy with Nazism, especially with the racial doctrines of the Nazis. Following World War II, for example, pan-Turkish, Iranian, and Islamic movements appeared in the southern regions of the Soviet Union. They were promptly accused of Nazi connections and branded as racist. Jews escaped this treatment until the Six-Day War of 1967. That event, however, aroused sufficient pro-Israel, pro-Jewish sentiment within the Soviet Union to evoke the by now almost bureaucratic response. Bernard Lewis writes:
The results were immediately visible in a vehement campaign of abuse, particularly in the attempt to equate the Israelis with the Nazis as aggressors, invaders, occupiers, racists, oppressors, and murderers.
Within a short period of time, and coincidentally with the introduction of “racist” into currency as a general term of abuse, Soviet propagandists began to equate Zionism per se with racism. In a statement released to the press on March 4, 1970, a “group of Soviet citizens of Jewish nationality”—making use of the facilities of the Soviet foreign ministry—attacked “the aggression of the Israeli ruling circles,” and said that “Zionism has always expressed the chauvinistic views and racist [my emphasis] ravings of the Jewish bourgeoisie.” This may well be the first official Soviet reference to Zionism as racism in the fashionable connotation of the term.
Steadily and predictably, these charges moved into international forums. In 1973 Israel was excluded from the regional bodies of UNESCO. In 1974 the International Labor Conference adopted a “Resolution Concerning the Policy of Discrimination, Racism, and Violation of Trade Union Freedoms and Rights Practiced by the Israeli Authorities in Palestine and Other Occupied Arab Territories.” The charge of racism was now pressed. In June 1975 it appeared at the Mexico City Conference of the International Women’s Year.
One must be present on those occasions to sense their intensity and their implications. It happens that the British critic Goronwy Rees was present at the moment the Third Committee of the General Assembly adopted the Zionism resolution. This is how it struck him:
There were ghosts haunting the Third Committee that day; the ghosts of Hitler and Goebbels and Julius Streicher, grinning with delight to hear, not only Israel, but Jews as such denounced in language which would have provoked hysterical applause at any Nuremberg rally. . . . And there were other ghosts also at the debate: the ghosts of the 6,000,000 dead in Dachau and Sachsenhausen and other extermination camps, listening to the same voices which had cheered and jeered and abused them as they made their way to the gas chambers. For the fundamental thesis advanced by the supporters of the resolution, and approved by the majority of the Third Committee, was that to be a Jew, and to be proud of it, and to be determined to preserve the right to be a Jew, is to be an enemy of the human race.
Rees was right: evil was loose in that chamber on that day. And it is still abroad in the world. The Zionism resolution was adopted by the General Assembly in November 1975. The following February, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights found Israel guilty of “war crimes” in the occupied Arab territories. The counts read as if they could have come from the Nuremberg verdicts:
annexation of parts of the occupied territories
destruction and demolition
confiscation and expropriation
evacuation, deportation, expulsion, displacement
and transfer of inhabitants
mass arrests, administrative detention, and ill-treat-
pillaging of archaeological and cultural property
interference with religious freedoms and affront to
In April 1976, in the Security Council, a representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization spoke of the “Pretoria-Tel Aviv Axis,” making an explicit reference to the “axis” between Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in the 1930’s. In May, in the same body, the Soviet Union accused Israel of “racial genocide” in putting down unrest on the occupied West Bank of the Jordan River. The same month, in a General Assembly committee, a PLO document likened Israeli measures to Nazi atrocities during World War II:
The sealing of a part of the city of Nablus is a violation of the basic human rights . . . reminiscent of the ghettos and concentration camps erected by the Hitlerites. . . .
That the purpose of all this was to delegitimize Israel in the interest of its Arab enemies was of course obvious to everyone. What should have been equally obvious was that the assault on Israel—the most vulnerable of the democracies—served a more generalized effort to deprive the democratic nations of their legitimacy as democracies. Salami tactics, as the Communists used to say—first one small unit of the democratic world, then the next. For in true Orwellian fashion, the free societies in the world were under attack precisely and paradoxically for not being free. They were attacked for violating human rights. The charge could range from genocide to unemployment, but it always followed the Orwellian principle: hit the democracies in the one area where they have the strongest case to make against the dictatorships.
Representatives of the Soviet Union and other Communist countries are not especially adept at this. But in a diplomatic maneuver which foreshadowed the military strategy of using Cuban troops as surrogates, they could sit back and allow most of the talking to be done by spokesmen from the Third World, some of whom were very good indeed at the Orwellian game. Of course, just as the Arabs had their own good reasons for attacking Israel, quite apart from any benefit to the Soviet Union, so these Third World regimes had their own good reasons for attacking democracy. With a handful of exceptions, the fourscore new nations which have come into the world in the last twenty-five years or so began their existence as constitutional democracies. By now the vast majority have succumbed to dictators and strongmen of one kind or another for whom the opportunity to attack any countries which have remained faithful to their constitutional vows is—to put it mildly—compelling.
Western policy has never seen the new nations in this light. For one thing, there was the tremendous investment of hope in what we saw as the small seedlings of our various great oaks and a corresponding reluctance to think, much less speak, ill of them. Then there was the trauma of Vietnam, which perhaps made it seem even more necessary that we should be approved by nations so very like the one we were despoiling. In consequence we were as thrown by these onslaughts from the Third World as we were when the Russians came up with the Cuban army as an extension of the same school of diplomacy. When in 1975 the Conference of the International Women’s Year resolved that Zionism is a form of racism, the senior American diplomat present cabled Washington: “ALL ESSENTIAL AMERICAN OBJECTIVES HAVE BEEN ACHIEVED.” If American diplomats could fail to recognize so egregious an attack on our own position, and were even unable to recognize that the attack had succeeded, is it any wonder that they were altogether incapable of understanding its general political significance?
Then, suddenly, everything changed. It would be hard to establish just why, but a useful axiom is that of Michael Polanyi: People change their minds. They wake up one day to find they no longer think as they did. Something like this happened in the case of human rights. One could see the evidence, for example, in the drafting committee for the 1976 Democratic platform. Sam Brown, representing what might be termed the McGovernite forces in the party, introduced a resolution demanding that all American military aid be cut off to regimes that did not respect human rights. Brown’s resolution was directed against authoritarian regimes of the Right and was in the spirit of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1973 which called on the President to “request the government of Chile to protect the human rights of all individuals.” I thereupon spoke for what might be called the Jackson forces in the party. The Jackson amendment to the Trade Act of 1974 was directed against certain policies of the same administration which in effect supported dictatorships of the Left. “To assure the continued dedication of the United States to the fundamental human rights,” declared the amendment, no credits were to be extended to non-market economies which denied their citizens the right to emigrate on reasonable terms.
The Brown proposal, we suggested, was too much a convenience for those nations which get their hardware from Czechoslovakia, and want their soft loans from the United States. Why not oppose any form of aid? “We’ll be against the dictators you don’t like the most,” I said across the table to Brown, “if you’ll be against the dictators we don’t like the most.” The result was the strongest platform commitment to human rights in our history. Whether or not it was this commitment which directly influenced the new President to take the offensive on human rights, he began doing so from the very first, in his inaugural address.
The problem now is to sustain the initiative. For not everyone in America—or at any rate in the American government—has changed his mind. The President, unavoidably, is getting the same advice that led to the passivity of his immediate predecessors. The State Department is uneasy about Soviet anger. The cult of the Third World is, if anything, greater now than ever. It is entirely possible the whole initiative will come to nothing if we do not establish a sufficiently firm conceptual base to sustain the inevitable tremor and shock.
Four principles come to mind on which to construct such a base.
First principle: International law and treaty obligations are wholly on our side. That for so long a period we appear to have forgotten this gave an inestimable advantage to the totalitarians. The Soviet reaction to the signs that our memories are stirring has been angry. But this “surprising adverse reaction to our stand on human rights,” as the President recently characterized it, will get worse, not better—they would be fools to respond in any other way. The more then should we know and understand that the law is on our side.
The United Nations Charter imposes two obligations on members. The first, which is well-known, is to be law-abiding in their relations with other nations: not to attack them, not to subvert them, and so on. But there is a second obligation, which very simply is to be law-abiding in the treatment of one’s own citizens. The United Nations Charter requires that members govern themselves on liberal principles, as these principles have evolved and are understood in the Western democracies.
Improbable as this may sound, it happens nonetheless to be true. The Charter, in the main, was drafted by British and American constitutional lawyers. The Preamble speaks of “fundamental human rights,” of “the dignity and worth of the human person,” of “the equal rights of men and women.” Article 1 enjoins the members to promote through the UN
respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.
The meaning of these words, as lawyers say, is entirely discoverable. They mean just what any of us in the Western democracies would assume they mean.
The Russians knew what they were signing. We do well to remember that they began World War II as allies of Nazi Germany, partners in the conquest and partition of Poland. They had a true pro-Nazi past to overcome. In the early days of the United Nations they sought to do this by taking the lead in asserting that members had to be—liberal states! In the first year of the new organization, the question arose as to whether Spain should be admitted to membership. Absolutely not, said Andrei Gromyko in the Security Council: to the contrary, punitive measures should be taken against Spain. Then in December 1946, on the initiative of Poland, the General Assembly adopted a resolution directed to Spain providing that
. . . if within a reasonable time there is not established a government which derives its authority from the consent of the governed, committed to respect freedom of speech, religion, and assembly, and to the prompt holding of an election in which the Spanish people, free from force and intimidation and regardless of party, may express their will, the Security Council consider the adequate measures to be taken in order to remedy the situation.
Poland and all the Communist members voted in the affirmative. (Spain was not admitted until 1955.)
Today there is not one member of the United Nations in five which can meet the standard of the Polish resolution. And yet it is those very nations who go about attacking members who do maintain those standards. There is a term for this: the big lie. But clearly, as we have been seeing, a counterattack can be devastating.
This brings us to the second principle: Human rights is a political component of American foreign policy, not a humanitarian program. It is entirely correct to say (as was repeatedly said during all those “years of silence” in Washington) that quiet diplomacy is much the more effective way to obtain near-term concessions from totalitarian regimes with respect to particular individuals who seek our help. But the large result of proceeding in this fashion is that the democracies accommodate to the dictators. Concepts of human rights should be as integral to American foreign policy as is Marxist-Leninism to Soviet or Chinese or Yugoslav operations and planning. Yet it seems clear that this is not what the career officers in the State Department who make up the permanent government wish to see, and the signs already suggest that the Secretary of State is not resisting the permanent government.
At Law Day ceremonies on April 30, Cyrus R. Vance delivered his first public address since becoming Secretary of State, and chose for his subject “Human Rights and Foreign Policy.” “Our human-rights policy,” he said, “must be understood in order to be effective.” He would “set forth the substance of that policy, and the results we hope to achieve.”
This effort was surely in order, for the policy was still singularly unformed. The President’s single sentence in his inaugural address—“Because we are free we can never be indifferent to the fate of freedom elsewhere”—had led to press speculation, then queries, then to a sequence of presidential acts—e.g., the letter to Andrei Sakharov, the meeting with the Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, and partial statements such as those in the address at the United Nations on March 17—but still nothing that could be described as a policy. The impression was that of a President responding at successively higher levels of commitment to successively greater levels of approval, but with no very clear notions of where it would all come out. There is nothing much the matter with this in a democracy. But there comes a time when the agents of policy must be told what to do. This is a Secretary’s task, and Vance undertook to perform it.
The result, it must be stated, bodes disaster. The Secretary’s speech missed the whole point. For the entire thrust of his speech was to assert that human rights is not a political issue but rather a humanitarian aid program, a special kind of international social work. After rousing the rage of the Muscovite and the scorn of Latin American grandees, after stirring the timorousness of European allies and inducing something between anxiety and fear in smaller capitals around the world, it turned out that all we really intended was to be of help to individuals.
Freud’s remark that anatomy is destiny has been used to suggest the importance of organization in government. The Ford administration established a “Coordinator for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs” in the office of the Secretary of State. The Coordinator had three deputies: “Refugee and Migration Affairs,” “Prisoners of War and Missing-in-Action,” and “Human Rights.” To reflect the greater salience which these issues are now to have, the Carter administration has asked Congress to make the Coordinator an Assistant Secretary. However, in the past, when this kind of change has been made, it has in fact signaled that the Secretary of State was no longer that much interested in the issue involved, and was turning it over to the bureaucracy. Thus, only a few years ago, coordinators or special assistants for environmental affairs and population matters were to be found in the Secretary’s office. But with the fading of those issues, they were turned over to the office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Environmental and Population Affairs, reporting to the Assistant Secretary for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs. Secretary Vance may not intend to relegate human rights to the destiny of departmental routine, but in organizational terms, this is what he has done.
Rounding out the pattern of a depoliticized conception of human rights, the Secretary in his speech announced:
We are expanding the program of the Agency for International Development for “New Initiatives in Human Rights” as a complement to present efforts to get the benefits of our aid to those most in need abroad.
He added that the Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs would also be involved. He declared our efforts would “range from quiet diplomacy . . . through public pronouncements, to withholding of assistance.” We would meet at Belgrade in June to review the Helsinki accords and “to work for progress there on important human issues: family reunification, binational marriages. . . .” He mentioned “that many [sic] nations of the world are organized on authoritarian rather than democratic principles.” He did not mention totalitarian governments. Nor might he, so long as the foreign service has its way. If the foreign service prevails, the Secretary of State will soothe the Soviet Union and only challenge Ecuador.
Can one already detect this influence not only in the Secretary’s statements but even in the President’s own more recent words? Only weeks ago, expressing his surprise at the “adverse reaction in the Soviet Union to our stand on human rights,” Mr. Carter said: “We have never singled them out. I think I have been quite reticent in trying to publicly condemn the Soviets. I have never said anything except complimentary things about Mr. Brezhnev, for instance.” But the Soviets are necessarily singled out by any serious human-rights offensive—and they know it. They are singled out by the force of their arms: they are the most powerful opponents of liberty on earth today. And they are singled out by the force of their ideology which, since the passing of Nazism and the eclipse of fascism as a school of political thought (Franco Spain having been its last paltry bastion), remains the only major political doctrine that challenges human rights in principle. When the authoritarian regimes of the Right violate human rights nowadays, they generally do so not in the name of a different political creed but in the name of national security. They must torture, they say, to uproot guerrillas and terrorists; or they must keep political prisoners to protect themselves against armed subversion from without and within. Unlike the Soviets and their ideological progeny in other countries ruled by Marxist-Leninist regimes, these right-wing regimes do not deride liberty as a “bourgeois” illusion. They commit abominations in practice; the Communist countries commit abominations on principle. Anyone who cares about human rights will know what type of abomination is the more destructive of those rights.
According to a presidential aide quoted by the New York Times, the President’s human-rights initiative, among other things, has alarmed the Soviet leadership. The Soviets had “viewed the United States under the Ford and Nixon administrations . . . as running a kind of defensive, rearguard foreign policy of retreat. . . . Mr. Carter and his advisers feel the Soviet leaders have been dismayed by the thought that their concept of the decline of the West might no longer be valid.”1 If the human-rights initiative turns out to be serious, the Soviets will have good cause to be dismayed at the stirring of a new American will to resist the advance of totalitarianism.
But here again, the permanent government can be expected to push in exactly the opposite direction—toward a policy of reassurance and accommodation. Indeed it already has, and with some success, to judge by the President’s commencement address at Notre Dame, the first and still most comprehensive statement of the foreign policy of his new administration. The President begins in this speech by reaffirming “America’s commitment to human rights as a fundamental tenet of our foreign policy.” But when he goes on to explain what this commitment requires of us, he suddenly changes the subject:
Abraham Lincoln said that our nation could not exist half-slave and half-free. We know that a peaceful world cannot long exist one-third rich and two-thirds hungry.
This is a most startling and extraordinary transition. The first sentence reminds us, truly, that the world today is half-slave and half-free. Out of four billion persons, something approaching a billion-and-a-half live in totalitarian Marxist states. We have come to think of this opposition as the East-West conflict. But then, having thus reminded us of it, the President immediately directs our concern away from this conflict to quite a different matter, that of relations between the industrial North and the developing South. He even calls on the Soviets, as part of the former group, to join in “common aid efforts” to help the latter (although the Soviets accept no responsibility whatever for the plight of the developing world: in their unwavering view it is all our fault).
The implication seems clear: we are to divert our attention from the central political struggle of our time—that between liberal democracy and totalitarian Communism—and focus instead on something else. We can do this, says the President, because we are now “free” of the “inordinate fear of Communism” which led us at times to abandon our values for the values of the totalitarians. But was our fear of Communism “inordinate”? And is there nothing to fear from Communism today? Does the President mean to suggest that the military and ideological competition we face from the Soviet Union has declined? If so, why have the Soviets engaged in a massive military build-up? And why do they continue and even intensify their ideological offensive against the West?
Whatever his answer to these questions, the President does state explicitly that it was our “inordinate fear of Communism” which led us to the “intellectual and moral poverty” of the war in Vietnam. This causal connection can also be challenged. Some of us said at the time that the enterprise was doomed, because it was misconceived and mismanaged. Are we to say now—in this, echoing what our enemies say of us—that it was also wrong or immoral to wish to resist the advance of totalitarian Communism?
This brings us to the third principle: Human rights has nothing to do with our innocence or guilt as a civilization. It has to do with our survival. The President has staffed the Department of State and the Department of Defense with curiously opposite groups of persons who have attracted each other in a not wholly reassuring way. Put plainly, the leading foreign-policy and defense-policy officials of the administration are men who made their reputations running the war in Vietnam. The second echelon of officials made its reputation by opposing that war. There is something troubling in this cross-generational relationship. Put plainly once again, the top echelon seems to be seeking absolution from its juniors for what the President himself now calls the “moral and intellectual poverty” of its ideas in the past.
Of the Secretary of State, Hedrick Smith, chief of the New York Times Washington bureau, has reported:
With the hindsight of history, Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance, who as Deputy Secretary of Defense played a major role in the American buildup in Vietnam, has publicly said that he now feels that “it was a mistake to intervene in Vietnam.” And those who know him well say that the Vietnam war is the single most important experience in shaping this current outlook.
One does not ask of the Secretary that he not be influenced by that experience: only that he be thoughtful about it. (At the University of Georgia Law School, where he spoke on Law Day, he shared the platform with Dean Rusk, a Secretary of State who came to office preoccupied with “the loss of China”—the opposite experience.) The Vietnam war was a mistake because we could not successfully halt a totalitarian advance there—not at costs acceptable to a liberal society. But it did not end the expansion of totalitarianism, nor yet the need to resist. If anything, it added enormously to the importance of ideological resistance, and this precisely is the role of “Human Rights in Foreign Policy.”
Guilt as a political weapon is but little understood. Still, it should be evident that it is used quite effectively within the United States and against the United States. Some years back Nathan Glazer observed that the political rhetoric of our age was capable of depicting a prosperous and tolerant and reasonably creative society such as our own as utterly detestable—and could persuade many of those best off in this society that this is exactly the case. In 1977 an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court declared in an opinion handed down from that bench that it were better never to be born than to be born an American and go to “second-rate” schools.
The President—any President—will face particularly subtle variations on the theme of guilt, a worldly, ex-ambassadorial, Council-on-Foreign-Relations concern that we Americans are such inveterate moralizers. Washington is awash with former cold warriors (they were only giving orders) who, having failed so miserably in their monstrously misconceived adventure in Vietnam, have decided that the country really is hopeless, that it has no capacity to resist the advance of totalitarianism, and that the best thing to do is to accommodate and to appease.
There is no way to deal with this save to raise it to the level of awareness, and to repudiate it. Human rights is a weapon in the struggle for the survival of the nation—a nation partly right and partly wrong, as it ever has been and doubtless ever will be. That we have a right and a duty to survive ought to be too obvious to need saying explicitly. That it is not obvious to our political culture is a measure of how savagely our guilt is turned against us.
Guilt has among other things paralyzed us in our relations with the developing world—and this leads to the fourth principle of a sound human-rights policy: The new nations must be made to understand that our commitment to them depends on their ceasing to be agents of the totalitarian attack on democracy.
Only a handful of these nations are Soviet satellites. But a Marxist might well say that time and again they objectively support the Soviet cause. The concept of objective political behavior is, of course, a favorite debating device of Marxists. Thus, Lucio Lombardo Radice, a leading member of the Central Committee of the Italian Communist party, recently explained in an interview in Encounter how Stalin in the 1930’s realized the dangers of Nazism and ceased attacking Western Social Democrats. “In the situation existing at the time, Stalin was, objectively speaking, supporting the struggle for freedom, democracy, and peace.” The time has come to explain to the representatives of a great many nations for which on other grounds we have a good deal of sympathy that, “objectively speaking,” they are supporting anti-Semitism, totalitarianism, and war.
An example was on display this past June at the International Labor Conference in Geneva. The American labor movement is one of the few groups to have sensed early on the drift of world events and Soviet tactics. In 1974, after the International Labor Organization passed a resolution denouncing Israel for racism, the labor movement, supported by the business community, asked that the United States give notice that we would withdraw if such intrusions of anti-democratic politics into the proceedings of ILO did not stop.
The ILO charter requires a two-year notice of intent to withdraw, and this was given in the fall of 1975. The letter made clear that the United States did not want to withdraw. We, after all, had helped to found the ILO at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. We had joined it when we never joined any other of the League organizations. We have provided the great share of its funds, and it was we who helped turn its attention to the problems of developing nations which now almost exclusively concern it. All we asked was that it stay out of international politics of the kind associated with foul-mouthed excoriations of Israel. This position was characterized by Trud, the Soviet labor paper, as a demand by “reactionary circles, and primarily the U.S. delegation . . . to exclude . . . political questions connected with the people’s struggle against imperialism, neocolonialism, and racism.”
We got our answer on June 3. “Using a procedural device,” the New York Times reported, “the Communist and Third World countries blocked action on an American-inspired proposal that the assembly’s rules be amended to screen out politically motivated resolutions.” With a handful of exceptions, the Third World sided with the Communist world against the democratic world.
On June 22, the Secretary of Labor, Ray Marshall, told a press conference that the United States will now likely leave the International Labor Organization. It is a little heartbreaking to those who have cared much about this organization which once seemed to hold such promise. But why did it happen? Because the Third World objectively chose to back Communism against democracy. They know this. And they will make a distinct judgment about which way the world is headed depending on whether we make clear to them that we know it.
Jean-François Revel puts the case at the most extreme in his new book, The Totalitarian Temptation2 He describes a world struggle between a truly revolutionary democratic model of society (to give Secretary Vance his due, he did quote Archibald MacLeish: “The cause of human liberty is now the one great revolutionary cause”) and a “Marxist-Leninist-Maoist model, with all its little brothers,” implementing a brand of totalitarian socialism which Revel calls “unofficial Stalinism.” These, Revel writes, are the real reactionaries, but in his view they are winning, because more and more the world finds such regimes to be more attractive:
Therefore . . . the new American revolution, or the new world revolution that started in America, will probably fail—not because of the United States but because the world steadily rejects democracy.
This is the “worst case,” and there are those who are resigned to it and appear already to have made their peace with it. Thus, George Kennan in his new book, The Cloud of Danger: Current Realities of American Foreign Policy, asserts that democracy is a North Atlantic phenomenon, and in no way a “natural form of rule for people outside those narrow perimeters.” It were folly and worse, he maintains, to go about correcting and improving “the political habits of large parts of the world’s population.”
This is an arguable point—does it not display a lofty disdain for what is after all a well-documented and universal human aspiration, namely, the desire to be free? But my point is a different one. I believe that Mr. Kennan underestimates the impact on the democracies of the totalitarian attack (for example: more than half a dozen British universities are now banning Jewish spokesmen from their campuses on the ground that Zionism is a form of racism). Most of the world is not free, and what we can do about that is problematic. But surely we can do something—surely we should do everything—to preserve that part of the world which is free. The point, Revel’s point, in putting the case at its worst is not to become resigned to the present state of affairs but to elicit countermeasures that will prevent the worst case from coming true. And it is here that the issue of human rights becomes essential.
For the moment our first task is our own defense. An implacable, forceful, and unvarying counterattack—“castigating mercilessly the prevailing mendacity,” as Walter Laqueur puts it3—whenever the issue of human rights and the nature of our respective societies is raised by our adversaries or their objective allies could yet save the democratic world from “Finlandization from within.” Human rights is the single greatest weapon we have left for the defense of liberty. It would be calamitous if we allowed ourselves to be robbed of it by the voices of fear and guilt, inside the government or out.
1 June 26, 1977. The Times may not have known it, but it was onto a government secret here of possibly more interest than the Pentagon Papers. In the first half of the 1970's the Democratic opposition generally attacked the foreign policy of the Nixon-Kissinger-Ford era as aggressive, risk-taking, and sometimes mindlessly anti-Communist. In truth, within the Republican administration itself, and at least within the more sophisticated circles of the Democratic opposition, it was understood that, to the contrary, what was going on was precisely a “kind of defensive, rear-guard foreign policy of retreat. . . .” Moreover, it was understood that the Russians understood it this way.
2 See the review by Stephen Haseler on page 79 of this issue.—Ed.
3 “The Issue of Human Rights,” COMMENTARY, May 1977.