IR Folks from Times Past

IR Folks from Times Past

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Questions about Human Rights

In his "Human Rights and the American Tradition," Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. recalls the old American debate about reforming the world by intervention or example. He cites John Quincy Adam’s famous 1821 July 4th address as the locus classicus of the traditional view exhorting non-intervention, where Adams warned that to become the champion and vindicator “of the freedom and independence of all” would insensibly change America’s maxims “from liberty to force.”

As the 19th century advanced, many began to agitate for a more forward policy, especially in the furor aroused by the crushing of Hungarian  independence by Russia in 1849. Schlesinger depicts the debate that arose after the Hungarian leader Louis Kossuth came to the United States urging American support for the independence of his country, and dwells especially on the speech of John Parker Hale, who warned that to erect the Senate of the United States into a “high court of indignation,” fulminating against the crimes of European monarchies, would be absurd when the greater injustice of slavery lay closer to home. I deal with this debate in my own Union, Nation, or Empire, and will not recapitulate it here, but instead wish to highlight the set of questions that Schlesinger draws from it.  

Is the point of foreign policy to discharge moral indignation or to produce real changes in a real world? May quiet diplomacy not be more effective than public denunciation? Must not the United States, when it invokes human rights, apply the principle across the board and not just to small and weak countries? May not intervention on behalf of human rights jeopardize other national interests and increase the danger of war? By what authority do we interfere in the internal affairs of foreign countries? Should all nations be expected to embrace the American conception of human rights? Does not the habit of passing judgment on foreign states nourish national self-righteousness? Should not a human rights crusade begin at home?

Given the vast changes in the condition of America and the world since 1850, it is pretty extraordinary that all these questions remain quite relevant today.We bobble around in, but cannot really escape, the circle of reasoning and the set of predicaments these questions disclose.