When President Obama addressed the U.N. General Assembly last September, he spoke about the importance of removing chemical weapons from Syria and emphasized that President Assad must give way to a more broadly accepted government. He did not mention human rights. He also spoke about his hopes for negotiating a settlement to the ongoing dispute over Iran’s nuclear program. But he insisted that he had no aim to change Iran’s “regime.” Again, he made no mention of human rights. Even when voicing concerns about transitional governments in the wake of the Arab Spring, he called in vague terms for greater inclusiveness, but did not invoke the term “human rights.” The Obama administration has other priorities.

Perhaps this is not surprising. When tens of thousands of civilians are killed in Syria, and thousands more are killed or threatened in terrorist attacks or sectarian violence in neighboring countries, it would seem rather out of place to complain that regimes in the region are not providing adequate guarantees for the right to a paid vacation—one of the “human rights” famously proclaimed in the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which deliberately offers no ranking or priority among the many rights it includes.

From our current vantage point, Obama’s omissions are much easier to understand than is the very different rhetoric of the late 1970s. Why did leaders at that time imagine that human rights declarations—nice words on paper—could solve real-world challenges? What were they thinking?

Samuel Moyn, professor of history at Columbia, offered one answer in a well-regarded study published four years ago by Harvard University Press. The title sums it up: The Last Utopia. In Moyn’s account, “human rights” emerged as a powerful slogan only in the 1970s, as disappointment engulfed earlier utopian hopes for socialism or Third World liberation movements. The human rights movement was “the god that did not fail while other political ideologies did.” Moyn celebrated the idealism of human rights activists, but acknowledged the core of utopian thinking that existed in their “yearning to transcend politics,” their talking and acting “as if humanity were not still confused and divided about how to bring about individual and collective freedom in a deeply unjust world.”

Now, Harvard has offered a new account. Barbara J. Keys agrees with Samuel Moyn that talk about human rights had little resonance before the 1970s. Though she teaches at the University of Melbourne in Australia, Keys focuses almost exclusively on developments in America. Where Moyn devoted much attention to the evolving views of prominent legal scholars and other academics, Keys devotes almost all of her attention to political debates in Washington. But her account does restore an important dimension of the story.

Keys interviewed a number of participants in Washington policy debates of the Ford and Carter years. She has dutifully scoured congressional hearings and archival collections from that era. Her account is somewhat starry-eyed in its depiction of Amnesty International’s American branch and its contribution to larger debates about human rights. But she also offers a sympathetic, or at least respectful, account of the different aims of hawkish Democrats like Senators Henry Jackson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

She even provides a respectful recounting of Henry Kissinger’s resistance to the human rights agenda. She quotes his complaints to State Department staffers, which include protesting that the department could not become “a reform school for allies” and wondering how “other countries can in any way deal with us” if we were to indulge in “public humiliation of other countries.”

What is new and valuable in Keys’s account, especially compared with Moyn’s treatment, is her emphasis on the distinct aims of Cold War liberals—advocates like Jackson and Moynihan—and their staff aides, such as Elliott Abrams and Richard Perle, in the late 1970s. For them, emphasis on human rights was a way to maintain ideological pressure on the Soviet Union. They were prepared to criticize dictators elsewhere, even some who were aligned with the United States, for the sake of expanding the coalition prepared to condemn enduring oppression in the Soviet empire. As Moynihan famously put it at the 1976 Democratic National Convention, “We’ll be against the dictators you don’t like the most .  .  . if you’ll be against the dictators we don’t like the most.”

What is least persuasive in Keys’s version of events is her effort to attribute great explanatory power to the aftermath of the Vietnam war. “Human rights promotion was an antidote to shame and guilt,” she writes; it shifted “attention and blame away from the trauma of the Vietnam War.” There may be something to this. But it would be hard to disprove any claim about the dreams and fears coursing through American politics in the mid-1970s, after military defeat abroad and the resignation of a disgraced president at home.

Still, quite a few big developments are missing in Keys’s account. Perhaps this was not deliberate, but it did not occur by happenstance. It is only by obscuring—or forgetting about—these developments that Keys can make her emphasis on the recoil from Vietnam sound like the central explanation for what happened in the 1970s.

The first thing that drops out of this account is the international setting. Keys does mention Henry Kissinger’s determination to improve relations with the Soviet Union through a policy of accommodation he called “détente.” She also mentions the sympathy for Soviet dissidents, championed by human rights activists on the left as well as the right by the mid-1970s. And she describes the efforts of American-Jewish groups to mobilize support for persecuted Jews in the Soviet Union, culminating in Henry Jackson’s legislation denying trade concessions to the Soviets unless they relaxed restrictions on Jewish emigration.

But all of these background trends required a prior relaxation of the Soviet government’s totalitarian grip at home and belligerent posture toward outsiders. No one talked about helping Soviet dissidents or Soviet Jews under Stalin. There were no open dissidents in the darkest era of Communist tyranny. Outside protests in that era would have brought swift retribution on the intended beneficiaries.

Even in the Khrushchev era, it would have seemed pointless to talk about human rights in the Soviet Union. The priority was averting nuclear war. Instead of heralding universal rights, political leaders—Democrats and Republicans in America, Social Democrats and Christian Democrats in Europe—talked about “the Free World,” seeking to rally all governments opposed to communism. Universal rights would only look plausible as a serious program when the world was less fiercely divided between East and West.

But terrible things could still happen in that world. In 1975, shortly after the American withdrawal from Vietnam, Communist guerrillas seized power in neighboring Cambodia. Some two million people—a quarter of the population—were butchered by Khmer Rouge forces. Keys does not discuss this episode. Her book emphasizes that liberal human rights advocates were motivated by feelings of “shame and guilt” over American actions in Vietnam. She does not inquire into their reactions to the horrors that ensued after America’s departure from the region. Even Amnesty International failed to condemn Khmer Rouge butchery while it was ongoing. That also goes unmentioned in Keys’s book. It’s much easier to embrace international human rights guarantees if you don’t feel any commitment to enforcing them.

So it is also revealing that Keys says almost nothing about the actual U.N. infrastructure that is supposed to provide international protection for human rights. The rights proclaimed in the Universal Declaration (1948) were understood at the time as “a standard of achievement”—that is, not immediately binding. To give them legal effect, the United Nations spent nearly two decades refining legal provisions in two treaties meant to be legally binding on signatory states: the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Covenant on Economic and Social Rights. They finally gained enough signatories to take effect in 1976.

President Carter signed these treaties, but could not get the Senate to ratify them. It took nearly two decades more for President George H. W. Bush to win Senate confirmation for the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1992. But the Senate then added limiting reservations to prevent the treaty from having domestic legal effect. There is not much in the way of international enforcement in U.N. organs. Still, we have, in principle, agreed to explain and defend our compliance record before international forums, at least for the Covenant and a few later human rights treaties.

For those who view international human rights as legal rights, it is logical to conclude (as many legal scholars do) that the United States should welcome international supervision of its own domestic policies. The argument is that we cannot expect others to take human rights norms seriously unless we demonstrate our willingness to be bound by them, even to treaty provisions extending “human rights” to the guarantee of free higher education and state programs to suppress “cultural stereotypes” of gender roles in private life.

Of course, committing to that program would also constrain democratic self-government and personal freedom in America, perhaps yielding a net decrease in actual human rights. That quandary does not evoke any comment from Keys. It may not have engaged the attention of American human rights advocates in the period she covers.

Keys does take some pains to emphasize that American human rights advocacy in the 1970s did not emerge from the domestic civil rights movement of the 1960s. The civil rights movement was about Americans. When human rights advocates looked outward, they didn’t give much consideration to actual challenges and actual consequences. Congressional liberals sought to cut off aid to American clients who abused human rights, whether or not such punitive measures were well-calculated to promote long-term reform in those countries, or in the wider world. Jimmy Carter explained that human rights must be the “cornerstone of foreign policy”—for domestic reasons:

We’ve been through some sordid and embarrassing years recently. .  .  . I felt like it was time for our country to hold a beacon light of something pure and decent and right and proper that would rally our citizens to a cause.

The Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations sought to channel demands for “human rights” into support for democratic transitions, with considerable success in Latin America and spectacular success in Eastern Europe, after the collapse of communism. The Clinton administration achieved some success in pressing for democracy in Africa. But after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein devolved into a brutal counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq, American leaders lost their appetite for grand rhetoric about protecting human rights around the world, even for supporting democracy. Barack Obama has decided to inspire Americans by negotiating with Russia to remove chemical weapons from Syria, and with Israeli and Palestinian leaders to resolve permanent borders between them.

A reading of this book makes that trajectory easier to understand. Among liberals, Keys reports, almost all prominent human rights advocates of the late 1970s had embraced the antiwar candidacy of George McGovern in 1972. The slogan of that campaign was “Come home, America.” The advocates were for human rights around the world, especially in countries aligned with America in the Cold War. But they were also for peace—or at least for avoiding American military intervention abroad.

Perhaps Barbara J. Keys is not wrong to characterize this aim as “reclaiming America’s virtue.” But only if you understand “virtue” to be the outcome of self-esteem therapy. There was a time, as Harvey Mansfield reminds us, when virtue was associated with manliness—and that required discipline, resolution, and effectiveness.

Jeremy Rabkin is professor of law at George Mason University.

Next Page