U.S. Policy on Human Rights

Speech Given at the National Council for the Social Studies Conference

November 23, 1983

San Francisco, California

 SHORTLY BEFORE his recent death, the venerable French writer and social theorist, Raymond Aron, observed that “the great weakness of the United States today is the absence of the will to power and fatigue of the people.” Raymond Aron was not the first social critic, of course, to draw our attention to this phenomenon. In recent years, many commentators have made reference to the West’s alleged lack of conviction and lack of will. Yet Aron’s remark, so pointed and so concise, and coming from a man long regarded as a genuine friend of the United States, invites us to take stock of our current situation, and to try to discover what — if anything — has happened to us over the years to provoke such criticism.

It is especially fitting, moreover, that I should try to answer this question before this distinguished audience. As teachers of the social studies in elementary and secondary schools, as curriculum supervisors from school districts across the country, and as university professors who train social studies teachers, members of the National Council for Social Studies are intimately involved in shaping the values of young people at a time when they are most impressionable and most susceptible to outside influence.

Revolutionaries and statesmen have long understood the crucial role which education plays in transmitting the habits, values and beliefs necessary for a society to function and endure. I have always found it fascinating, for example, that in writing his own epitaph Thomas Jefferson, who had so many achievements to his credit, wished to be remembered for only three of them: author of the Declaration of Independence, of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, and father of, the University of Virginia. The Virginia Statute and the Declaration of Independence are sources of the values upon which this country is founded. The University of Virginia was established in order to transmit these enduring values from one generation to another.

In recent years, however, it has become apparent that democratic values no longer command the assent they once did — especially among young people. The fact that a prominent official, an educator herself, can be prevented from delivering a commencement day address at a leading university because part of the audience disagrees with her views, or cannot present a lecture because university authorities are unable to guarantee her physical safety, illustrates the problem. We appear to have reached a point where some young people are encouraged simply to indulge their whims and where the criteria by which individuals can distinguish passions from values seem to have been lost. The best description of this rather bizarre state of affairs is to be found in the writings of Plato. Plato describes the man who is educated but without values in the following words:

“He… also lives alone day by day, gratifying the desire that occurs to him, at one time drinking and listening to the flute, at another downing water and reducing; now practicing gymnastics, and again idling and neglecting everything; and sometimes spending his time as though he were occupied with philosophy. Often he engages in politics and, jumping up, says and does whatever chances to come to him; and if he ever admires any soldiers, he turns in that direction; and if it’s moneymakers, in that one. And there is neither order nor necessity in his life, but calling this life sweet, free, and blessed he follows it throughout.”

These words were written almost two and a half thou-sand years ago, yet who would deny the accuracy with which they describe a significant proportion of the middle class youth who attend our top colleges and universities today? And who would deny that the existence of such a large body of young people represents a breakdown in the crucial process of political socialization, a failure for which our schools must be held at least partially responsible?

To understand the roots of this failure, I believe that we must look to the ideas which underly the teaching of social studies in our schools. “Sooner or later,” wrote John Maynard Keynes, “it is ideas . . . which are dangerous for good or for evil.” Recent events bear out Keynes’ observation. For the last fifty years or so, the teaching of social studies in our schools has been dominated by cultural relativism, the doctrine that there are no absolutes, that one cannot say that one culture or tradition is preferable to another, that the very attempt to discriminate between opposing traditions is a form of “ethnocentrism” and that virtue consists only in being “open” to every life style. In the 1930s, when this doctrine first began making headway in our schools, it was directed against very real prejudices of race, religion and nationality. Today, however, it remains mostly as the means for weakening convictions about anything, for promoting a kind of nihilism. If all traditions are equally valid, then none is ultimately compelling. If you can’t make meaningful distinctions between values, then nothing crucial is at stake in the choice between competing values. And if one system of government is as good or as bad as another, then the struggle between governments — between free societies and unfree societies, between democratic politics and totalitarian states — amounts to no more than “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

In 1982, the National Council for Social Studies published a booklet entitled, “International Human Rights, Society and the Schools.” The purpose of this booklet is altogether praiseworthy: to help social science instructors interested in teaching about human rights. The booklet contains useful summaries of some of the international covenants and conventions which have entered into force since 1948. Its authors recognize the growing role played by human rights concerns in international affairs. At the same time, however, the booklet conveys the unmistakable impression that the principal task of social science teachers is “to dissipate students’ egocentric and ethnocentric views of rights.” By placing the study of human rights in an international context, the booklet maintains, teachers can help “guard against students believing that Americans are the only people in the world whose Constitution deals with rights.” Students must be taught to appreciate various human rights traditions. “In Western Europe and the United States civil and political rights such as freedom of speech, voting, and due process are of prime concern. In Eastern European countries, economic rights such as the right to work, to form trade unions, to strike, and to take vacations are considered essential… The rights which are deemed most important depend upon the social, economic, legal, and political traditions of the people.” In short, all human rights are relative. Let us pause for a moment and ask, in which Eastern European country is the right to form trade unions considered essential? Poland? Czechoslovakia? Is it being said that the right to strike is respected by Eastern European governments — which in fact uniformly prohibit it? And is it seriously being suggested here that anyone postulates equal importance for the right to take vacations and the right to free speech? But let’s go on.

To further guard against “nationalistic biases and stereotypes” and to help students “become aware of the differences in the ways in which human rights are perceived in various parts of the world,” a “very simple pre-test” is suggested to stimulate discussion. Here is one question from this “very simple” test:

Maria got along well with her Russian visitor, Alexei. But they did argue about differences between the Soviet Union and the United States.

“But you have no freedom in the Soviet Union,” Maria said. “There is only one party in elections. Your newspapers are run by the government.”

“We do have freedom,” Alexei insisted, “No one goes hungry. Any person can find work. Medical care is free. Can there be greater freedom than that?”

What is the best conclusion to draw from that debate?

A. Alexei does not really understand the meaning of freedom.

B.  The two countries differ in their ideas about freedom.

C. There is freedom in the United States but not in the Soviet Union.

D. People have greater freedom in the Soviet Union than in the United States.

Now I am the US Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, and I may fail your test. For if I were taking this test, I would either chose answer (A), “Alexei does not really understand the meaning of freedom,” or answer (C), “There is freedom in the United States but not in the Soviet Union.” Yet the preferred answer here, it is clear from the contents of the entire study guide with its mentions of economic rights in the USSR, is (B), “The two countries differ in their ideas about freedom.” Differ indeed! Do we not recall the Gulag? To conclude that the Soviet Union and the United States differ in their ideas about freedom — choice (B) — and leave it at that, is rather like saying that Hitler and the Jews held different views about the nature of religious freedom. That is to say, it is a grossly misleading answer — misleading about history, misleading about politics and above all, misleading about human rights.

I would respectfully like to suggest that in order to avoid such obvious and egregious errors social studies instructors pay a bit more attention to the sources of the American human rights tradition. It is a dismaying but incontrovertible fact that one of the greatest philosophical documents in that tradition, The Federalist Papers, is not taught very extensively in either our colleges or our graduate schools. Yet there is no reason why selections from that work should not be taught even at the high school level. Such selections, it is true, would prove intellectually demanding, but placing intellectual demands on students is the very definition of education. And at the risk of displaying my own “ethnocentric” and “nationalistic” biases, let me say that a great deal more could be learned by students about the nature of human rights from reading The Federalist Papers than from following the “Recommendation Concerning Education for International Understanding, Cooperation and Peace and Education Relating to Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms,” published by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Indeed, the very fact that a publication purporting to advance the teaching of human rights in this country respectfully cites UNESCO’s recommendations, but ignores The Federalist Papers altogether, is a revealing measure of the degree to which we are out of touch with the intellectual wellsprings of our own national existence.

Let me turn, then, to a very brief, and necessarily in-adequate, discussion of certain aspects of our own human rights tradition which should be stressed in any course of studies devoted to human rights. I begin with the Declaration of Independence, since the principles contained therein are what Abraham Lincoln called, “the definitions and axioms of free society.” As everyone here knows, the Declaration holds four truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that governments, whose proper role is to ensure these rights, may only be instituted by the consent of the governed; and that, when government becomes destructive of those rights, the people have the further right to alter or abolish it, and reinstitute another in its place.

As Americans, we have been brought up on these words. Having heard them so many times already, perhaps we are tempted to turn off what the late Martin diamond called “a kind of psychic hearing aid” upon hearing them yet again. Nevertheless, these old words merit our deepest attention. Consider, for example, the idea of “inalienable rights” in the Declaration of Independence. By calling human rights inalienable, our Founding Fathers sought to underscore the fact that these rights do not derive from the state, but inhere in the human condition itself. Since the state did not grant us our human rights, it cannot therefore deprive us of these rights. It cannot tell us that our enjoyment of human rights is conditional on our performance of certain duties. By stressing the “inalienable” character of our human rights, our Founding Fathers wished to make it absolutely clear that there is an irreducible area of human activity that is beyond state control.

The importance of these philosophical propositions emerges most clearly when we contrast our own constitution with the Soviet Union’s. The Soviet constitution contains long lists of so-called rights. Yet, as Dr. Robert Goldwin has observed, “The rights enumerated in the Soviet constitution are clearly seen as gifts bestowed on the citizens by the Soviet state.” In return for the enjoyment of these gifts, the citizens must pay a price. Thus, for example, for the theoretical right to “freedom of speech and press,” the Soviet citizen has the “duty to use them ‘in accordance with the people’s interests and for the purpose of strengthening and developing the socialists system.’ ”

But what happens if a Soviet citizen refuses to do his duty as defined by the Soviet constitution? Suppose he complains about his inability to say and write what he pleases, to come and go as he pleases? For the crime of engaging in “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” he clearly forfeits the gifts bestowed upon him by the state. Perhaps Soviet authorities, as punishment for his ingratitude, will sentence him to three years imprisonment followed by ten years in a labor camp. This was Anatoly Scharansky’s sentence.

Perhaps the authorities will strip him of his position and his honors and send him into internal exile. This was Andrei Sakharov’s punishment. Perhaps the authorities will simply decide that a man who says terrible things about the Soviet Union must be suffering from “creeping schizophrenia,” and belongs in a psychiatric ward. This has happened to many lesser known dissidents over the years. An article in the Washington Post on November 21, 1983 told of a turn by the KGB back to straight physical torture in dealing with its victims. Whatever the Soviet authorities decide, however, the individual is defenseless. He had no “inalienable rights” to fall back on, since the Soviet State refuses to recognize any sphere of activity that is beyond its control.

The argument that we in the United States enjoy civil and political rights, while Soviet citizens enjoy economic “rights,” is founded on a lie. For Soviet citizens enjoy no rights. Theirs is a world of privileges granted — or revoked — by the state, at its whim.

But enough of the Soviet constitution. Let us look at another assertion contained in the Declaration of Independence — the proposition that governments are instituted to secure human rights. This proposition, of course, has to do with the ends of government, the purposes for which governments are established. These days, political scientists rarely address themselves to the ends or purposes of government. Rather, they seem to have developed a “managerial” perspective, according to which the most important question to ask about any government is “How does it work?” and not “What ends was it designed to achieve?” But let us remember that the Founding Fathers recognized that human beings form political communities to achieve certain purposes, and they believed that the ends people choose to pursue, and the means by which they choose to pursue them, define the nature of their political community.

The ends which our Founding Fathers chose to pursue, of course, were human rights. The purpose of government, they declared, was to secure these rights. Not, it should be stressed, to promote virtue or piety, privilege or wealth, empire or dominion: only rights. So often have we heard the old words of the Declaration of Independence that we are apt to forget the novelty of its underlying argument. We forget that neither the Hebrew prophets nor the Greek philosophers nor the Roman lawyers nor the medieval schoolmen ever said that the protection of individual liberty was the purpose of government. Thus, Lord Acton, the great British historian, was correct to say that, “in the strictest sense the history of liberty dated from 1776, ‘for never till then had men sought liberty knowing what they sought.’ ”

The notion that the end of government is to secure liberty hardly commands universal assent today. If you held a candid conversation with a diplomat from almost any member state of the United Nations, for example, he would probably tell you that his leaders believe that other national goals — wealth, say, or virtue, or even glory — are much more important than individual liberty. To be sure, this diplomat would add, his government finds it expedient to couch its goals in the language of human rights — and even to propose new human rights, such as the so-called “right to development” — but words are one thing, and reality is something else again. And if this diplomat were being exceptionally honest, he might even confess that efforts to speak of “alternative” human rights traditions only serve to promote intellectual confusion. Strictly speaking, there is only one human rights political tradition in the world today, and this is embodied in the political system known as democracy.

In drawing up our constitution, the Founding Fathers recognized that they had to design political institutions that were strong enough to undertake the great tasks of nation building, yet not so strong as to endanger human rights. As James Madison put it in Federalist Paper number 51, “in framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

The political theory which informed the efforts to create such institutions is spelled out most beautifully in The Federalist Papers. “To read and understand them,” wrote Carl Van Doren in The Great Rehearsal, “[is] the next thing to having had a hand in making the Constitution.” The complicated, yet intellectually compelling, train of reasoning that went into the creation of such institutions as federalism, separation of powers, bicameralism, judicial review, indirect representation, the extended public, democracy, constitutionalism and limited government are all contained in this single document. The Founders believed that these institutions were the product of what they called a “new political science.” It should be added that the institutions of our government are works of art no less than of science, are as much of the fruits of the creative imagination as a sculpture or a symphony.

In the opening stanzas of Dante’s epic poem, The Inferno, the poet describes how he found himself alone in a dark wood whose very memory “gives a shape to fear.” For millions of men and women in our century, fear has taken the shape of two political symbols: the swastika and the hammer and sickle. And for millions of Europeans in 1941, for displaced persons in European camps in 1945, for Hungarians in 1956, for boat people in Indochina, for Afghan freedom fighters, for millions upon millions of immigrants seeking a new life, hope has also taken the shape of a political symbol: the Stars and Stripes. Does acknowledging this fact really reinforce “nationalistic stereotypes?” Might it not be better to reject the fashionable sophistries of our time and to tell students the simple truth: that the United States is the party of liberty in the world today because we are the heirs of a great political tradition — a tradition which not only cherishes human rights, but which understands how to embody these rights in the concrete institutions of government? And in telling students these things, would we not be defending these very institutions against a rampant nihilism which threatens to drain them of their vitality and their vigor?

As I noted, governments must be strong enough to control themselves but not so strong as to resist democratic control by the people. Our goal in Central America is to help the people there build those kinds of democratic governments.

There is a myth about Central America that tells us the key battle there is between right and left. This is just not true; the key battle is between those on the violent right and left who oppose democracy, and the vast majority of the people, who seek democracy.

I hope it is clear to you that US policy is to back the democratic center. If it is not clear, you ought to ask those in the death squads and those in the guerrilla bands why it is that they have not yet captured power. If you could ask this question and get an honest answer, the answer would be “the United States.”

Three-quarters of our aid to Central America is economic. Even for El Salvador, two-thirds of our aid is economic. It is our policy to seek political and economic and social development in the area. Thus, we have been a mainstay of support for land reform in El Salvador, and for the return to civilian democratic rule in Honduras (which finally took place in 1982), and we have sought to maintain the closest alliance to the model in the area, Costa Rica. But let us not have our heads in the sand. There is a security threat in the area, and that one-quarter of our aid which is military is essential. Anyone who doubts this needs only to look at the documents captured in Grenada. These documents reveal the workings of a Leninist party, cooperating with Cuba, and even getting aid from North Korea in its plans to establish a communist dictatorship. Cuba and Nicaragua, and for that matter, the Soviet Union, are busily at work in Central America. What are they doing there? Whatever they are doing, one thing we know for sure: they are not advancing the cause of human rights. When Nicaragua sends guns to the guerrillas in El Salvador, or infiltrates agents into Honduras, or threatens democracy in Costa Rica, its goal is not to improve the human rights situation in those countries. If Cuba or Nicaragua, or the Soviet Union were interested in advancing respect for human rights, they could start at home.

What role should the US be playing now? The road to political, social and economic reform is a long and difficult one. On it, campesinos and labor and church leaders, and democratic politicians are caught quite literally in a crossfire between the violent right and the violent left. Our role should be to support them and protect them as they fight for democracy and social change. We owe them this, which means we owe them more than simply acts of abstention or withdrawal as a human rights policy. It is not enough to withhold this or to refuse that; we should be actively engaged in supporting those who share our values. And this is what they want. If you talk to Christian democratic leaders in Guatemala or El Salvador, or the Archbishop of San Salvador or Managua, or labor leaders in those countries, and listen to them, they do not ask us to get out. Archbishop Rivera y Damas has carefully said that he opposes all military aid in El Salvador, but recognizes that if some countries are aiding the guerrillas it is logical for the government to secure assistance as well. The democratic forces in Central America deserve our help. The worst thing we could all do with respect to human rights in Central America would be to abandon those in the center who are fighting for human rights.

American influence in a number of countries is often exaggerated. We do not control any of these countries in Central America. When we have controlled countries rather completely, what has been the result? In Germany and Japan where we were an occupying power we did everything we could to establish democracies, and we succeeded. Surely it is already obvious that we will leave behind us in Grenada another nascent democracy. Democracies are our best allies and our goal in Central America is to promote the cause of democracy there. It is a goal of which we can all be proud.


  • Honorable Elliott Abrams

    Elliott Abrams (born January 24, 1948) is a well known neoconservative American diplomat, lawyer and political scientist who served in foreign policy positions for both U.S. Presidents, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

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