Samuel Moyn's The Last Utopia traces the history of human rights policy.

Reading between the lines.
Jan. 3 2011 7:36 AM

The Birth and Death of Human Rights Doctrine

The Last Utopia traces the history of human rights policy.

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And then came 9/11. The attacks get hardly a mention in the book, despite dramatically altering the trajectory of nearly every government in the world. The overriding concern since then has been protecting Western homelands from terrorism. Promoting human rights has receded into the background. This shift is most evident in the public response to the killings in Sudan over the past decade. Outside of the NGO and Hollywood activist communities, the call for intervention is practically nonexistent. After Rwanda, such silence would be unimaginable if America were not already embroiled in two wars and focused above all on keeping al-Qaida at bay.

That mission itself testifies to the shift: Torture, secret prisons, and the rendition of terrorists—blatant and brutal human rights violations all. The Obama administration has increased drone attacks that slaughter civilians in Afghanistan. In June, the Washington Post revealed that the administration has Special Operations forces currently operating in 75 countries and has undertaken unilateral raids in Yemen, western Pakistan, and Somalia. Obama has relieved the minimal pressure exerted by the Bush administration on despotic but friendly regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and China. Whatever all of this is, it is not an excessive devotion to human rights.

To be sure, human rights activists at Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International continue to work at applying what Kennan called the "legalistic-moralistic approach" to world affairs. And there are some neoconservatives who embed a human rights worldview within a larger quasi-moral foreign policy perspective that that calls on America and its allies to use force in the service of maintaining global stability and spreading democracy. But the actual record of governments over the past decade illustrates the problems with abandoning human rights, not the dangers of fetishizing them. A prudent foreign policy cannot be dictated by human rights, but neither can it be contemptuous of them.

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Far more dangerous than the NGO push for human rights, these days, is the exploitation of human rights by governments. The Bush administration cynically claimed it was concerned with liberating Afghani women from the Taliban when it invaded Afghanistan, but this was a priority neither of policymakers nor of the public. And the administration disastrously appropriated the language of human rights in its invasion of Iraq, illustrating the real dangers of pushing for a rights-based foreign policy. In his terrific Pact with the Devil(2007), Tony Smith outlines how the administration adopted the language of well-meaning liberal internationalists to pursue its hardline nationalistic ends. Any talk of "spreading" human rights and democracy is always vulnerable to becoming a form of imperialism and risks being appropriated by governments looking for moral cover in their pursuit of power. Moyn overlooks all this, more concerned with academic debates than with the political context in which the debates are occurring.

Moyn has harsh words for human rights advocates and is correct to observe that a politics oriented around human rights could be a dangerously overzealous one, oblivious to the limits of power and wisdom. But insisting that governments honor their already-existing human rights commitments is a different story. Maintaining hard-won laws like Habeas Corpus and the right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment is hardly utopian—it is, in fact, a conservative project.

Even Kennan, 35 years after his original pronouncements against a moral foreign policy, wrote that "there are times in these recent years when I have found myself wishing that there were a bit more of morality in our concepts of what is legal, and more attention to legality in our concepts of what is moral, than I see around me at this time." As Americans contemplate yet more years devoted to chasing a terrorist organization with as few as 500 members, they would do well to keep human rights—preserving them, not spreading them—in mind.

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Jordan Michael Smith is a writer in Washington, D.C.