Originally published February 23, 1981
I agree with George P. Brockway’s conclusion that “policies like the human rights program are precisely what is needed, while unleashing the CIA will damage us severely” (“Foreign Policy in a Bipolar World,” NL, January 12). But it seems a gross exaggeration to attribute the decline of Eurocommunism or the survival of Spain and Portugal outside the Russian orbit to former President Carter’s human rights program and the Helsinki Final Act. While it may be easier to arrange “for our enemies to have enemies” than to increase the number of our friends, there is little evidence that this can be achieved by trumpeting the human rights cause. To direct human rights policies” more toward making the USSR mistrusted than toward making ourselves beloved or feared,” depreciates their value.
The best argument for a human rights program is not that it makes enemies for the Soviet Union and friends for the U.S. Human rights are intrinsically good, like international economic prosperity and the absence of world war. They are invaluable, not only because we like them, or because they are the foundation of American independence (“the objective of American foreign policy”), but because the more human rights prevail abroad, the easier it will be to preserve them here.
In the many regions that are critical for our foreign policy-the Middle East, Africa, Central America, Eastern Europe, South Asia-human rights are endangered not only, or even primarily, by threats of Soviet subversion or penetration. The greater danger is that human rights in these crucial areas are imperiled by economic and social disequilibrium. A credible human rights program cannot be separated from concern about and involvement in efforts to achieve more equitable social and economic systems in the destabilized regions.
President Carter’s human rights program was so selective that it seemed deceitful to many in the Third World. It was too obviously a propaganda weapon aimed at discrediting the USSR by focusing on Communist betrayal of freedom, while giving little if any attention to identical or even worse violations by regimes that were supposedly our friends-Iran, China, Korea, the Philippines, and others frequently cited by Amnesty International. Are Arabs, Indians, Latinos, and those to whom the Voice of America sends news about our human rights concerns supposed to take protestations about Soviet dissidents seriously when they fail to hear of our concern about their dissidents?
Carter’s human rights program also failed to link the rights of free speech, free press, free assembly, and free political organization with the rights to work, eat and grow old with dignity and security. In much of Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America it will be difficult, perhaps impossible, to achieve the first category of rights without the second. A credible human rights program cannot be selective; it must demonstrate concern for the rights of all, and must also seek the right to survive with dignity as well as to protest the misdeeds of oppressive government. Otherwise, the foreign policy advocated by Brockway will be perceived by most of the Third World and much of the rest of the world as mere rhetoric.
Binghamton, N. Y.
Professor of Political Science State University of New York
George P. Brockway’s article is full of provocative statements. Many of them I agree with, but not all of them can be logically advocated at the same time. I most certainly agree that promoting human rights is not merely moralizing, that this can serve a number of important foreign policy goals. For example, because the Carter Administration took human rights seriously in Latin America, our diplomatic and economic interests were advanced. As a number of countries successfully navigated the difficult transition from authoritarian to democratic rule (Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Peru), we were able to construct a series of close working relationships which immensely improved our diplomatic strength. With the United States no longer identified as a close collaborator of every dictator, American businessmen found a friendlier environment; in Latin America, no major investment disputes developed over the last four years.
I also agree that the United States too often places great stake in the momentary political posture of Third World governments. Treating the world as a zero-sum game, where the “loss” of any state is automatically a gain for the Soviets, the United States has squandered great energy and resources in trying to control the domestic politics of an innumerable number of developing nations. Yet the inherent economic and military importance of these nations, more often than not, is marginal to any reasonable definition of United States interests. Moreover, even if a nationalist government should come to power, whether of the Right or the Left, the chances are very great that it would still want to participate in the international economic system. It would want to trade with U.S. firms and to borrow from U.S. banks, and have no choice but to pay the interest rates established in the London money markets. Very few leaders in the developing world consider either autarky or the Soviet-led COMECON as an alternative to the Western economy. Indeed, even Communist countries-from Hungary to China are anxious to increase their participation in what has become a global economic system.
Brockway is also correct, in my opinion, to argue that an aggressive foreign policy, perhaps resorting at times to covert action, can too often be counterproductive. The Soviets and Cubans were active in Angola before South Africa invaded in 1975, but there is no doubt that the Cuban presence was legitimized in the eyes of most Africans by the South African invasion and the CIA presence. Even when covert operations succeed for the moment, the future can bring disaster. In Central America, an active CIA has helped maintain conservative, generally military governments for decades. But now Somoza is gone and El Salvador today-or Guatemala tomorrow-faces a powerful insurgency that views the United States as the major source of succor for their oppressive governments. Iranians remember all too well our long collaboration with the Shah and his secret police, SAVAK.
In arguing that the Soviets will often find that client states cost more than they are worth, Brockway offers a useful corrective to those who present each Soviet “gain” as a trauma for the West. The Soviets are undoubtedly finding their foreign obligations to be a major drain on their limited resources, and must be wondering whether an expansionist foreign policy is really in their interests. Nevertheless, I am not sure that the United States can be quite as relaxed about Soviet activities in the Third World as Brockway seems to suggest. Especially when Soviet actions take a military form, we ought to register loud disapproval. If we are to establish “rules of the game” for superpower activity in the Third World, constraints must be placed on both the Soviets and on us with regard to the use of force in there. If the Soviets do not desist, the pressure will continue to mount for the United States to respond in kind. Yes, our interest should be in seeing that Third World states are independent states, not clients of any superpower. As Algeria recently demonstrated in helping to gain release of the U.S. hostages held by Iran, genuinely independent countries can often be more useful than “loyal” allies who enjoy little respect in the world and have essentially passive foreign policies.
Yet this formula for genuine nonalignment is not consistent with Brockway’s view that we live in a bipolar world. In a bipolar world, it becomes extremely difficult for relatively weak states to avoid seeking the protection of one of the two superpowers. Each superpower logically sees the disengagement of any country from its sphere of influence as a “loss,” a weakening of its alliance system. Each superpower will therefore struggle, using various means, to maintain its friends in power around the globe.
Fortunately, today we live not in a bipolar nor even in a multipolar world, but a poleless one. Power has become so diffuse that many states have accrued significant quantities of it. Countries such as Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Nigeria, Libya, Iraq, and India have enough power to try to maneuver international events in accordance with their national interests. Smaller powers in their areas recognize the presence of the regional “influentials,” and must· adjust to this. In the past, we mistakenly imagined that we could manipulate these regional “hegemons” to do our bidding. In fact, they have proven capable of defining their own foreign policies in the light of their perceived national interests. Their policies have sometimes converged with ours, but frequently have not.
A poleless world is infinitely more difficult for the superpowers to manipulate. Either superpower that tries to control events in the Third World today is bound to face frustration and disappointment. For that very reason, if the United States maintains a sense of proportion and keeps its eyes on its true interests, the Third World will be seen as a less threatening place.
Washington, D. C.
Resident Associate Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
George P. Brockway replies:
I full agree with Richard Feinberg that we should “register a loud disapproval” when Soviet actions in the Third World take a military turn, and I expect that he agrees with me that our disapproval should itself seldom take a military or even a quasi-military turn.
My fundamental differences from Don Peretz would, however, require volumes to elucidate, though the particular policies we would support are probably very close. In brief, he believes that some things are “intrinsically good,” while I find that the intrinsic goods he mentions are often in conflict. Forty years ago the “intrinsic” good of human rights was in conflict with the “intrinsic” good of the absence of world war. Was one more intrinsic that the other? The inability of “political science” to answer such questions produces the very “unstable amalgam of moralizing and Realpolitik” that I mention in my article.
An aphoristic summary of the position of my article may be found in the concluding words of a forthcoming volume on The Philosophy of History by the late Professor John William Miller: “History does not show men good or bad; it operates by assuming that they are moral-that is, agents. Good, in history, can mean only the perpetuation of those critical processes that define the moral.”