The Power Politics of Human Rights

August 12, 1997 • Commentary
This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

When Ralph Waldo Emerson famously observed that “consistency is a stranger to great minds,” he must have had forewarning of the Clinton administration’s human rights policy. Certainly, its decisions over the past week display a charmingly haphazard pattern. Over China, Southeast Asia, Bosnia and the Caspian, the administration has reached openly inconsistent positions. A great mind, it seems, must be at work.

In fact, the explanation is more banal. In this administration, human rights come into play when there is little else at stake. This means that faraway impoverished countries like Myanmar (formerly Burma) feel the full weight of U.S. wrath. By contrast, as soon as commercial opportunity or strategic concerns make themselves felt, the administration looks for the soft option.

Several recent decisions illustrate the point. While in Malaysia, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright took every opportunity to blast Myanmar and Cambodia for human rights failings. In her meeting with China’s Foreign Minister Qian Qichen, however, she took a milder line, agreeing to transfer the dialogue about China’s human rights performance to a nongovernmental body.

On the other side of the world, two similarly contradictory announcements took place. On Aug. 1, President Clinton welcomed Heydar Aliyev, a former KGB officer and now president of oil‐​rich Azerbaijan, to the White House and campaigned for the abolition of the Freedom Support Act placing sanctions on Azerbaijan for its “serious human rights abuses.” Further, Clinton advocated the construction of a pipeline across Iran to Turkey, despite legislation explicitly barring energy‐​related investment in Iran–signed into law by his own pen–despite Turkey’s own imperfect human rights performance.

Almost at the same time as the U.S. was going easy on China, Azerbaijan and Turkey, it was cracking down on the Bosnian Serbs. At a July 23 conference in Brussels, the U.S. pressed for reconstruction aid to the Bosnian Serbs to be placed in escrow pending an improved human rights performance.

The common denominator is power politics. The brutal fact is that China and Azerbaijan have more clout than the Myanmar, Cambodians or Bosnian Serbs. Hence, they get kid‐​gloves treatment.

Cynics will argue that this simply means that money talks. That is certainly part of the story. It is foolish to imagine that human rights can be applied regardless of strategic considerations. Nonetheless, the vagaries of the present U.S. approach undermines America’s role as, in the words of Albright’s commencement speech at Harvard, the world’s moral “pathfinder.”

This is a powerful image. The world should be grateful that the world’s leading military power has a moral conscience and seeks to exercise its influence not arbitrarily but according to an accepted set of universal standards. The trouble with universal standards, however, is that they make no distinction between friend and foe, big and small, important and peripheral. Once the administration is seen as playing favorites or using human rights to advance its own political agenda, its moral credibility is diminished.

This accusation was leveled at Albright by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. He called for the 1948 U.N. Universal Declaration on Human Rights to be abandoned in favor of a looser code under which individual governments could set their own human rights standards in accordance with their own needs.

Given that this is often a code word for “authoritarian,” Albright rightly–and robustly–rejected this notion. Universal, she argued, includes everyone. She needs to be careful, however. High moral standards are one of the distinguishing glories of American foreign policy. They play a vital role in motivating Americans to take an interest in foreign affairs. If this motivating power is to continue, human rights must not be invoked cynically, cheaply or casually.

In the past month, the administration has been on the verge of committing all these errors. It gives the impression of using human rights as a convenient club to bully the politically friendless like the Bosnian Serbs or the strategically irrelevant like the Cambodians. In the meantime, commercially or strategically powerful nations like China and Azerbaijan can get away, literally, with murder.

This is not good enough. Human rights are never easy to align with strategic realities. Perfect consistency is not to be expected. Indeed, it would signify something less than a great mind. But if the administration is to exercise moral authority on the important issues, it must be prepared to square off with the big boys, not just the small fry.