The Magazine

Virtue Rewarded?

The origins of the ‘Human Rights Revolution’ are more complicated than this.

Feb 3, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 20 • By JEREMY RABKIN
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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.