In Reclaiming American Virtue: The Human Rights Revolution of the 1970s, historian Barbara Keys joins the likes of Samuel Moyn in critical examination of the late-20th century rise and deployment of a concept often thought timeless. For Keys, human rights became a way to “redefine America to Americans,” to help heal the country in the aftermath of Vietnam, when so many old certainties and beliefs about America’s place in the world had crumbled. Below, as the U.S. again finds itself trying desperately to move on from a long and ineffectual period of war, Keys considers the ongoing evolution of American concern for human rights around the world.
President Obama is diffident about international human rights. In his six years in office, Obama has zigzagged around the concept, generally treating it like an embarrassing relative who can’t be disowned outright but should be avoided when possible. His September 24 speech to the United Nations is the latest sign of discomfort with the vision that Jimmy Carter enshrined as a core element of U.S. foreign policy: that America should work to protect and enhance human rights around the world. Speaking before the General Assembly, Obama reaffirmed America’s global leadership and ticked off the usual pantheon of ideals: democracy, freedom, openness, respect for difference, and international cooperation. But instead of describing these values as inextricably linked to human rights, he seemed to suggest that human rights was a UN program, distancing the United States from ideas Americans once claimed as their own.
Compare Obama’s timidity with Jimmy Carter’s address to the UN General Assembly in March 1977, less than two months after the new president took office. Carter, too, spoke of “freedom, self-government, dignity, mutual toleration, and the peaceful resolution of disputes.” For him, the promotion of human rights was central to meeting these ideals. “The basic thrust of human affairs,” he told the assembled delegates, “points toward a more universal demand for fundamental human rights. The United States has a historical birthright to be associated with this process.”
As I show in Reclaiming American Virtue, the difference between Carter and Obama over human rights has much to do with the legacy of the Vietnam War. Carter embedded human rights promotion in U.S. foreign policy to help Americans get over the trauma of the Vietnam War. For Obama, the dynamics the war set in motion no longer apply.
Americans turned to international human rights promotion in the mid-1970s, I argue, because they sought to rebuild their tattered reputation in the wake of a brutal and unsuccessful war. After the disheartening amorality of the Nixon-Ford years, Americans hoped that the moral language of human rights would heal the country’s psychological wounds. Human rights promotion, after all, focused attention not on American misdeeds but on the brutal acts of far-off dictators.
Human rights promotion emerged from an internecine battle within the Democratic Party. In 1972 antiwar presidential candidate George McGovern told Americans they should feel guilty—they, and not just the country’s leaders, were responsible for the war’s horrific toll. After his disastrous loss, both the conservative wing of the Democratic Party, which began to split off in outrage over what it perceived as McGovern’s extremism, and the liberal wing, which sympathized with McGovern’s antiwar stance but saw that guilt did not sell, began to see human rights as a kind of panacea. To stand for international human rights positioned the United States once again as a benevolent force in world affairs.
The rise of human rights in the 1970s helps explain the reasons for Obama’s unease with human rights. He is the first president who is not a product of the Vietnam War era, and so is largely immune to the psychological dynamics that made human rights appealing. Because the logic of human rights promotion in the 1970s worked to hinder a true reckoning with the costs of American intervention abroad, it made future intervention more palatable rather than less. The groundwork was laid for the next logical step: war in the name of human rights. The names of the conservative Democrats who raised the banner of human rights in the 1970s—Richard Perle and Douglas Feith among them—would become familiar to Americans as the neoconservatives who wed ideals to the use of force and thereby justified the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
But the war went awry. We can expect continuing recriminations over where responsibility for the current disaster lies, but human rights gains for Iraqis are little in evidence today. So Obama confronts a world in which using American power to enhance human rights seems deeply problematic. But he has failed to find an alternative moral standard. His successor will face a choice: a return to human rights—or a new idealism?