From the Cold War to the War on Terror, a historian and foreign-policy analyst charts the rise of human rights and the U.S. government’s appropriation of the doctrine for its own ends.
In the immediate wake of World War II, when America busied itself reorganizing a good portion of the globe, human rights played little role in the nation’s foreign policy. Notwithstanding the noble words adorning the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights, American policymakers rejected rhetoric deemed simultaneously too airily sanctimonious and too dangerous, given the nation’s own persistent civil-rights problems. Instead, the country flew the banner of anticommunism, emphasizing the virtues of freedom and modernization. By Jimmy Carter’s administration, after the disastrous Vietnam War, the government sought a new mantra and seized upon human rights, in Zbigniew Brzezinski’s phrase, as “a globally resonant message of a great power.” Relying on decades of documents from the CIA, NSA, the Defense Department, think tanks, government-development agencies and a variety of human-rights groups and NGOs, Peck (Washington’s China: The National Security World, the Cold War, and the Origins of Globalism, 2006) traces the growth and utility of the doctrine though five more administrations, as each has used human rights (and other idealistic rationales like “democratization” and “humanitarianism”) to justify American interventions. The author identifies two currents of the human-rights movement—one concerning itself with individual civil and political rights and another focused on cultural, educational and economic issues—and demonstrates how the United States, while conveniently ignoring embarrassing chunks of its own history, has nimbly highlighted the first at the expense of the second. This clever statecraft has placed the two currents at odds, hamstringing various human-rights organizations insistent upon their own objectivity or subtly manipulating them in service of Washington’s ideological purposes. Peck calls for a broader understanding of human rights, one that doesn’t inoculate leaders against charges of human-rights abuses simply because they head democracies, one that takes collective rights every bit as seriously as individual rights.
A prodigiously researched, provocative critique.