Human rights as an essential element for national security

February 11, 2016 Vanessa Walker
Mdesignstudio /

This series of Issue 2 response posts are written by former Miller Center fellows who offer their perspective on the topic of national security and how to best prepare the next president for the challenges of the first year.

One of the most pressing challenges facing a new administration is crafting a coherent vision for American foreign policy. Beyond addressing specific threats to national security and the promotion of broad national interests, American foreign policy defines for the world, and its own citizens, the values the United States hopes to embody as a nation. As both Brands and Suri note with Reagan and Clinton respectively, vision has to be translated into strategy, and perhaps more importantly, that strategy must align international goals with national domestic politics and national values. Today, with the challenges presented by the global refugee crisis, and threats from groups such as ISIL to American security, the incoming administration must embrace human rights and humanitarian considerations as essential elements for bridging the U.S. global interests and its domestic democratic identity if the nation is to have an effective foreign policy strategy.

Almost four decades ago, Jimmy Carter embraced human rights as a central tenet of his administration. He rejected the assumption that national values had to be sacrificed to security interests; rather, human rights would be the key to securing U.S. interests and recapturing American ideals. During his campaign, Carter had increasingly emphasized human rights as a corrective for U.S. Cold War national security policies that had gone awry in past years. He believed that the U.S. government’s interventionist policies in places like Vietnam, and support for dictators throughout the Cold War, had undermined both the credibility and security of the United States, while also exacerbating human rights crises. Further, the past decades’ policies had eroded support for U.S. foreign policy at home and created a divide between the public and its government.

Carter was bold in selling his human rights agenda to the American public. As he was sworn in as president on 20 January 1977, Carter took an uncompromising rhetorical position, declaring, “Our commitment to human rights must be absolute.” Carter used his short inaugural address, one of the briefest in history, to champion the need for humane policies and a return to the nation’s core values both domestically and internationally. The United States’ “unique self-definition,” Carter asserted, had given the nation “an exceptional appeal, but it also imposes on us a special obligation, to take on those moral duties which, when assumed, seem invariably to be in our own best interests.” Carter’s promotion of human rights also sought to recapture a sense of U.S. values at home both within government and among the American people. The vision he repeatedly articulated in his short speech was one of interdependence of domestic and international strength, with a commitment to the nation’s most basic ideals drawing the two together. “Our nation can be strong abroad only if it is strong at home,” he noted. “And we know that the best way to enhance freedom in other lands is to demonstrate here that our democratic system is worthy of emulation.” The Carter administration presented human rights not in the face of national interests, but as an essential augmentation to them.

The promotion of human rights, however, required more than just new rhetoric; it necessitated a broad rethinking of basic national security paradigms and bureaucratic functioning. In its first year, as the Carter administration promoted human rights principles publicly, it built a framework to incorporate human rights into U.S. foreign affairs. Carter officials worked quietly and doggedly behind closed doors to underscore to foreign leaders that this was an issue of central importance to the U.S. government and secure small but important concessions on human rights issues abroad. Yet the administration soon faced resistance, not only from those who fundamentally disagreed with the administration’s new vision, but from those who believed in it most. Quiet diplomacy, coupled with the Nixon administration’s legacy of public distrust, led supporters of human rights to question Carter’s commitment to his human rights policy. As he met privately with dictators to pressure them on human rights, public support waned and former supporters charged him with hypocrisy and inconsistency.

By the end of its first year in office, the Carter administration had launched a human rights campaign and developed a comprehensive policy framework internally to support these initiatives, but had also left key questions of priorities to be decided on a case-by-case basis. The administration’s emphasis on flexibility, although logical for finding the most effective strategy for any particular case, left central tensions in its human rights vision unresolved. Carter convincingly argued that a policy that embodied the nation’s best values could also serve its long-term interests; he was less transparent on what criteria his administration would use when human rights considerations inevitably conflicted with other interests. This made it more difficult for the administration to sell its vision to a public, and opened up questions of its prioritization of human rights and charges of inconsistency.

Despite his compelling vision of American power and the enduring inclusion of human rights consideration into U.S. security policy, scholars often depict Carter’s first year in office as an object lesson of good intentions gone awry. His inability to transform a compelling agenda into political success resulted not from naiveté or ignorance of the complexities of implementing a human rights agenda. Rather, his weakness stemmed from the disconnect between absolutist rhetoric and the realities of the nuanced, case-specific policies his administration developed. His own advocacy to promote human rights as a viable dimension of U.S. foreign policy, with statements like “our commitment must be absolute,” raised expectations he could never hope to meet, and ran counter to the more subtle diplomacy needed to advance both human rights and U.S. interests.

Any U.S. national security policy today must systematically incorporate the nation’s democratic values and mission, humanitarian concerns, and human rights if it hopes to garner public support and reflect Americans’ understanding of themselves. Promotion of human rights is not necessarily a trade-off between morality and concrete objectives such as national security. Like all interests, however, there are hard choices and moments when one issue will surpass another. To stave off disappointment and disillusionment resulting from the necessarily slow and often private work of implementing U.S. foreign policy and advancing humanitarian interests, the incoming administration must explain to the public how and why human rights considerations are central to the new national security priorities. It must also illuminate the inherent complexities and apparent inconsistencies of viable policies. A strong national security agenda will not only lay out viable policies to address key strategic problems, it will do so in a way that is responsive to domestic values and constituencies. Developing a strategic vision that both acknowledges and transcends case-by-case particularities of reconciling values and interests is as difficult as it is necessary to finding success in Syria, the Middle East, and globally.

Vanessa Walker is the Joseph W. and Diane Zerbib Assistant Professor of History at Amherst College. She received her B.A. from Whitman College and her M.A. and Ph.D. in History from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She was a Miller Center fellow from 2009-2010. She is currently working on a book about human rights policies in the 1970s.