Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Policy

CAP Senior Fellow Morton Halperin testified on how the U.S. can pursue a ‘real’ foreign policy that advances human rights across the globe.

“Hypocrisy remains an equal opportunity malady,” lamented Frank Calzon, Executive Director of the Center for a Free Cuba at last week’s House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on “Ideals vs. Reality in Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Policy.” The hearing, which included testimony from CAP Senior Fellow Morton Halperin, addressed the effectiveness and practicality of U.S. foreign policy in Azerbaijan, Cuba, and Egypt.

Halperin, along with the other experts testifying, maintained that the United States can help realize human rights advances—particularly in these three countries where there is a clear gap between our democratic hopes—by using its influence wisely and respectfully.

“This process begins with a better understanding of the nature of foreign policy,” Halperin said, pointing out that “it is a fundamental misunderstanding of the world to contrast a foreign policy of ‘idealism’ with one of ‘realism.’” That dichotomy, he argued, presupposes a division between our ideals and our real interest, but “preventing genocide is no less a ‘real’ interest than is keeping the price of oil low or reducing the risk of a military attack.”

The only sound basis for foreign policy is the democratic process, and as Halperin explained, this often means that our agenda will differ from country to country. This may seem like a double standard, but it is a practical approach for a diverse country and a diverse world. “In its relations with other countries, the U.S. must at times have the courage of inconsistency,” noted Jennifer Windsor, Executive Director of Freedom House.

That said, Halperin emphasized the need for a strong commitment to human rights across the globe, saying “Any assessment of effectiveness of U.S. policy needs to be grounded in an accurate assessment of the state of human rights and freedom within a country.” The way that we pursue human rights should be tailored to each country. As Windsor explained, “Only with a firm understanding of the situation and our intentions can the United States influence positive change for human rights."

Human rights improvements are best realized when they are led by domestic support within the countries in question, Windsor argued. “The fate of freedom and democracy, and the state of human rights in other countries, has always primarily been determined by those within these societies. The ability of the U.S. government—or for that matter any non-governmental organization—to influence the course of events abroad is therefore necessarily limited.” Halperin added a clear example of this, citing “counterproductive” United States attempts to influence Iran.

In countries where the public welcomes U.S. assistance, such as Azerbaijan and Egypt, the United States should use its economic prowess to motivate change via economic assistance and humanitarian aid. Halperin called for “affirmative incentives to encourage states to improve their human rights records.” He even asked Congress to amend the Millennium Challenge program to limit assistance to democracies that respect human rights, thus motivating regional improvement. Trade sanctions should not be off the table, but the key is not harshness, according to Windsor. Instead she advocated a “specific tailored strategy.” A positive U.S. foreign policy is a smart one.

The United States faces a number of obstacles in its pursuit of human rights across the globe. A sullied reputation, weaker international institutions, and diminished military resources make it harder to demand better practices by other governments. Even so, the state of human rights in Cuba, Egypt, and Azerbaijan is deplorable, according to Freedom House, and the United States should take action. As Chairman Delahunt reminded the committee, “That’s what makes us special among the family of nations.”

Read Morton Halperin’s testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight.

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