Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Right Minds

In a speech to employees at the State Department, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson openly said what a lot of people have suspected has always been true: That the security interests of the United States take precedence over asking other countries to adopt American values when the two come into conflict.

Despite this being little more than the United States aligning its rhetoric with its practices, this shift in tone has alarmed some human rights watchdogs, who feel that the United States is lessening its commitment to global human rights. Part of the concern is that nations that are already dismissive of human rights concerns will become even more willing to contravene them, if they understand that the United States is moving them to the back burner.

The question that this raises for me is a simple one: Where does the perception that governments around the world look to the United States for guidance (or how much they can get away with) on human rights issues come from? The missile strike ordered against Syria for the use of chemical weapons against the civilian population took many people by surprise precisely because it was unusual. The President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, had no problem with telling President Obama to go to Hell when criticized about the number of extrajudicial killings he sanctioned in his war on drugs, drug users and drug dealers. While he's now been invited to the White House to meet President Trump, it seems unlikely that he was reining things in before this, simply because of the United States' official disapproval or fear of intervention.

America's traditional approach has been to use the rhetoric of moral absolutism but to act pragmatically, while the rest of the world gazes at our hypocrisy with slack-jawed astonishment.
Eric Posner "Convictions - Simple Answers to Complex Questions" Slate Magazine, Monday 7 April, 2008
One presumes that the world's human rights abusers recovered quickly from their astonishment, because American rhetoric around moral absolutism has rarely moved the needle. The United States tends to care about trade and security, and rarely do human rights concerns bear directly on those aspects of American foreign policy. Rather, they were often used as a critical talking point, a way of calling out nations on the world stage. This is not to say that the United States has never taken human rights seriously, but serious consequences for violators, simply for being human rights violators, seem pretty thin on the ground.

It seems that what's at work here is people taking international "Whataboutism" more seriously than perhaps they should. While it's true that other nations are often quick to criticize the United States for not practicing what it preaches, they rarely bother to do the work to take the high ground themselves. Rather, their criticisms come across as more, "I know you are, but what am I?" And the nice thing about claiming that only the perfect can criticize is that since no-one is perfect, no-one is ever in a position to criticize. Nations ignore human rights - or what activists and advocates consider human rights - because it's in their interests: economic, military, political et cetera, to do so. And the United States has rarely, if ever, placed human rights above those issues itself. If a nation is sanctioned for human rights violations, it tends to be a safe (though not guaranteed) bet that, as far as the United States is concerned, it isn't a significant trading partner, it's not of any strategic importance and there isn't a powerful domestic constituency staring down their members of Congress. Especially if they're being sanctioned solely for human rights violations.

So while I understand the desire for the United States to be a moral leader on issues like this, I don't understand the apparent perception that it already is. The facts on the ground don't seem to support it.

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