rights: Bloodsuckers versus hypocrites
Related to cover story The Economist April 12, 1997
DISAGREE with someone on economics and you are usually simply questioning their powers of analysis. Argue with them about human rights and you often end up questioning their morality.
In Victorian Britain, the master of moral indignation was Gladstone. In 1876, outraged by reported atrocities by Turks against Christians in Bulgaria, he led a campaign for concerted European intervention in the Balkans, complete with pamphlets and mass rallies.
"There is not a cannibal in the South Sea Islands", he thundered, "whose indignation would not arise and overboil at the recital of that which has been done." To Disraeli, the Conservative prime minister of the day, Gladstone's moral posturing was intolerable. In private, he called him "an unprincipled maniac". In public, he said the worst Bulgarian atrocity he knew of was Gladstone's pamphlet on the subject .
One of the main reasons why Gladstone was able to stir up public opinion was that then, as now, voters were worried that their country's foreign policy implicated them in the evil acts of a foreign nation. Just as modern Britons criticise their government for selling weapons to Indonesia, which has a bloody record in East Timor, so the Victorians asked how Britain could be allied with the brutal Turks.
Diplomats then, as now, responded with arguments about national interests. Disraeli's government was pursuing a pro-Turkish policy to offset the power of Russia and to protect British imperial interests. In a twist which seems peculiarly contemporary, the leak of an ambassadorial telegram stirred up popular passions.
The British ambassador in Turkey was found to have argued that Britain's interest in keeping Turkey strong was "not affected by the question whether it was 10,000 or 20,000 people who perished." Modern realists, bemoaning the criticism they are subjected to, sometimes see popular pressure as a new phenomenon.
But even the cause célèbre of the Bulgarian atrocities was not the first example. Castlereagh was loathed by the radicals of his day. Shelley wrote:
I met Murder on the way-
He had a mask like Castlereagh-
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven bloodhounds followed him:
All were fat; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed them human hearts to chew
Which from his wide cloak he drew.
Modern invective just isn't up to standard. To many liberals, Henry Kissinger is the personification of amoral foreign policy, rather as Castlereagh once was. But Mr Kissinger is also one of the few diplomats to try to articulate a moral basis for realist policies.
As an academic Mr Kissinger's first book was a sympathetic study of the efforts of Metternich and Castlereagh to re-establish international order in post-Napoleonic Europe.
When the joined the Nixon administration, he chillingly pledged to "purge our foreign policy of all sentimentality". In Mr Kissinger's view, Metternich had re-established peace in 19th-century Europe on the basis of the balance of power and an agreement by the big powers to accept each other's legitimacy.
Similar ideas infused Mr Kissinger's own attempt to reduce cold-war tensions through detente with the Soviet Union and the reopening of ties with China.
So far as Mr Kissinger was concerned, the Soviet military threat was a legitimate source of concern; Soviet treatment of its dissidents less so. Mr Kissinger even persuaded President Ford not to receive Alexander Solzhenitsyn in the White House, lest this antagonise Soviet leaders.
Mr Kissinger has never accepted that his policies were in any sense amoral. Rather he argued that peace and order were prerequisites for the achievement of moral ends "because ideals could hardly flourish under conditions of perpetual war or anarchy".
In his speeches and writings Mr Kissinger has often insisted that considerations of human rights should indeed play a part in the formulation of American foreign policy. As his biographer, Walter Isaacson, notes, however, such avowals of the importance of human rights are usually followed by sentences beginning "But".
Inevitably in a country as suffused with Wilsonian ideals as America, Mr Kissinger became a controversial figure. Conservatives approved of his readiness to use force to protect American interests but disliked his compromises with the Soviet Union.
Liberals liked the idea of better relations with the Soviet Union but were horrified by the regimes Mr Kissinger was prepared to support (the Shah in Iran, Augusto Pinochet in Chile). When it comes to the central dilemma of foreign policy today-policy towards China-Mr Kissinger is again an important figure (this time in the background).
And, again, he is making the case that constructing a working relationship with the Chinese in the interests of maintaining a balance of power is more important than pressing for changes in the country's human-rights policy.
His maxim concerning the Soviet Union-"not to hold detente hostage to improvements in Moscow's treatment of its own people"-could summarise his position on China. At the moment America's China policy seems to be swinging in a Kissingerian direction. Having come to office pledging to get tough with dictators "from Baghdad to Beijing",
Mr Clinton has found getting tough with China on human rights much harder than he had imagined. An early attempt to link China's trade privileges with improvements in its observance of human rights was abandoned under pressure from American businessmen.
But it is not just vulgar commerce that is leading the Clinton team to play down human rights. The threat of military conflict with China over Taiwan has emphasised to the Americans how high the stakes are-and caused them to redouble their efforts to get on with the Chinese.
To realists, Mr Clinton's dilemma over China was to be expected. It is easy, they say, to posture about human rights, much harder to do anything. Gladstone's agitation for Balkan intervention in 1876 was no more effective than similar pleas have been in the 1990s. Which leads to the second perennial question: how does human rights fit with other foreign-policy concerns?
Historically, attempts to put human rights at the centre of foreign policy have often gone awry. The two American presidents who have laid most emphasis on human rights (broadly defined) were Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter. Both left office disappointed men.
Grand illusions? When he persuaded America to enter the first world war, Wilson felt it was not enough to argue that fighting was in America's national interest. The war was being fought, he said, to "make the world safe for democracy".
After the war, Wilson argued for a new world order which transcended traditional great-power politics and placed a greater emphasis on collective security, democracy and self-determination. Yet even Wilson's sympathetic biographer, Arthur Link, notes that Wilson's faith in the miraculous power of democracy sometimes led him to "illusory appraisals and quixotic solutions".
In the end Wilson's countrymen rejected membership of the League of Nations, which Wilson believed to be the key to a new world order. Henry Lodge, a Senator who opposed the League, commented that American policy should be based on human nature "as it is, not as it ought to be".
Yet though Wilson was defeated, his belief that America should promote freedom, democracy and self-determination has remained the dominant strand in American rhetoric and a part-often a large part-of its foreign policy.
Human rights have rarely loomed as large as they did under Jimmy Carter. When he was elected in 1976, he pledged to put concern for human rights back into the forefront of American foreign policy after the heyday of Mr Kissinger's realism.
Mr Carter's attempts to distance America from some of its nastier authoritarian allies was undermined when these regimes were replaced by rabidly anti-American governments in Iran and Nicaragua.
The Carterites could respond with some justice that the source of much of this anti-Americanism lay in America's previous willingness to identify itself with repressive governments. But America's humiliation in the Iran hostage crisis and the rise of Soviet adventurism in the third world reinforced the impression that Mr Carter's human-rights-centred foreign policy had merely weakened America.
The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 appeared to signal a return to hard-edged realism. In practice, however, far from revealing that the pursuit of human rights abroad was futile, Mr Reagan's presidency showed that it was possible to have your cake and eat it-ie, you could crusade for rights while enhancing your national power and interest.
Mr Reagan was not a realist in the Kissinger mould. He had opposed detente. Unlike the Kissingerites, who drew a distinction between the Soviet Union's internal and external behaviour, the Reaganites saw the two things as closely connected.
The famous phrase-"evil empire"- was a moral one. The "Reagan doctrine" sought to roll back Soviet-backed governments by backing "freedom-fighters" around the world. That the democratic credentials of the Nicaraguan Contras or the Afghan Mujahideen were, to put it mildly, disputed made some people suspect that the Reagan doctrine was simply old-fashioned power politics dressed up as a crusade.
Towards the end of his presidency, however, Mr Reagan was able to show that American zeal could be applied even to right-wing allies. In 1987, American pressure did a lot to push authoritarian but pro-American South Korea towards democracy.
Similarly the Reagan administration was prepared to pull the rug from underneath Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, despite his impeccable anti-communist credentials. Mr Reagan's presidency made clear that supporting freedom could successfully be made a central tenet of American foreign policy and that the means existed to pursue that goal. In the case of the Reagan doctrine, those means were the support of proxy wars.
In the case of South Africa-trade sanctions, initially opposed by the Reagan administration (but signed by the president nonetheless)-showed that there were non-military tools for pushing human rights abroad.
The collapse of communism in Europe in 1989 appeared at first to release America from the moral ambiguities of the cold war. Without a global struggle against the Soviet Union to wage, America could be much more unequivocal in its support of human rights around the world. No longer would it have to say of a right-wing dictator that "He may be a sonofabitch, but he's our sonofabitch."
Francis Fukuyama, an official in the Bush administration, famously predicted "the end of history" as nations began to converge on liberal democracy. Both George Bush and Bill Clinton proclaimed that spreading democracy should be a main aim of American diplomacy.
But the West's apparent failure to make much progress in pushing human rights in China (see chart) has dented some of this confidence. Clinton administration officials now take refuge in the notion that the spread of economic freedom in China will eventually bring in its wake political freedom. In some respects this is a rationalisation for inaction on human rights.
But it also fits in with a tenet of liberal thought-long resisted by the realists-that history is on the side of human rights.
History's hidden hand Realists tend to think that liberals are soft in the head. Mr Kissinger recently wrote that: "The growth of democracy will continue as America's dominant aspiration, but it is necessary to recognise the obstacles it faces at the moment of its seeming philosophical triumph."
In his view, cultural differences around the world, combined with the inevitable jostling among rival centres of power, make confidence in the spread of democracy a dangerous illusion.
For much of the past two centuries, the liberal belief in the inevitable spread of human rights and democracy did indeed seem like more of an act of faith than a piece of analysis. But these days, it seems to be the realists who are curiously reluctant to acknowledge the obvious: that democracy has made vast and heartening progress in the past 25 years.
European dictatorships collapsed in Greece, Spain and Portugal in the mid-1970s. Most of Latin America's dictatorships collapsed in the 1980s. Communism fell in Eastern Europe in 1989, apartheid has gone, and former Asian autocracies like Taiwan and South Korea have also become more democratic.
So, for all the protestations of the realists, there does seem to be a bit of a trend here (see chart). Indeed, one of the lessons of recent history may be that the realists' preoccupation with balance-of-power politics risks neglecting the underlying forces that move history.
Many of Mr Kissinger's decisions-such as the snubbing of Mr Solzhenitsyn-now seem ill judged. Those who regard it as soft-headed to campaign for the release of political prisoners might reflect that today's prisoner can be tomorrow's president.
Ask Nelson Mandela or Vaclav Havel. In such a climate, faith in the spread of human rights and willingness to give it a helping hand may not be a liberal illusion-it may be realistic.