Human Rights in US Foreign Policy

Essay, 2007

14 Pages, Grade: A


Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. American Exceptionalism and competing national interests

III. US Foreign Policy and Human Rights in Retrospect – Rhetoric vs. Reality

IV. Conclusion – exceptionalist multilateralism

V. Bibliography

I. Introduction

The traumatic experience of World War II led to an international consensus on the need of a universal framework protecting the rights of each individual and the integrity of communities. The United States having been largely isolationist before the War entered the World stage and took a substantial part in the formulation of human rights. Against the background of the Cold War the institutionalization of a common framework was everything but easy. In retrospect it seems that the American commitment to human rights is ambivalent. On the one hand American rhetoric constantly uses human rights as a legitimating moral claim, on the other hand it stays in its exceptionalist tradition and sees itself not to be in need of any international supervision.

To understand the gap between ideal and reality, the concept of American exceptionalism needs to be examined. How does this conception affect the political culture in the USA and how can we explain this sense of superiority? Another question will be the legitimacy of this belief and the rationale that drives policy makers to perpetuate this notion.

To evaluate the commitment to human rights in foreign policy, it will be necessary to have a look at the different administrations and their attitude toward human rights. They all face institutional constraints in policy decision making so that even if there is a “real” commitment to human rights, it is not enough that the president himself endorses such a framework. Similarly, there are other national interests that can trump moral considerations which was especially evident during the Cold War. Special events and public opinions as well as ideological beliefs of the main actors strongly influence the place of human rights in the hierarchy of preferences.

Even though good intentions can be identified in some administrations, the commitment to human rights in US foreign policy remains rather marginal and serves merely as a legitimating rhetoric. This affect not only the credibility of the United States itself but the validity of the whole concept of universal human rights.

II. American Exceptionalism and competing national interests

Human rights in the US are often used synonymously with American values and rights. Traditionally, a strong belief in moral superiority and outstanding rights tradition is prevalent in the American society. The nation is seen as extraordinary and more elaborated than any other country in the world. This notion of American exceptionalism is part of the political culture, causes special domestic demands and thus needs to be addressed by any policy to enjoy public support (Forsythe 1995: 111f). This exceptionalist point of view hampers the possibility of making the USA part of any international law regime, which is especially true for human rights.

A paradox consists in the fact that, while playing an active role in negotiating and formulating human rights standards and claiming to be “champion of human rights” (Mertus 2003: 371), the United States does not accept to be subject to theses binding standards and tend to be an outlier (Ignatieff 2005: 2). Applying a form of cultural relativism and emphasizing American particularities, the United States do not believe that there is anything to learn from other countries and do not accept foreign influence in their national legislation. This concept is not compatible with a claim to universal human rights[1]. This essentialisation of culture and tradition elevates state interests to ethics and follows a neo- Macchiavellian logic that gives precedence to the nation state and not the individual. Considering the American claim to be leader in individual and civil rights, this poses an inconsistency. In the early times of the human rights corpus, the main reservation was against communist influence, that is to say collective and social rights. Until these days, the contradiction between promoting human rights rhetorically, but not implementing it at home continue to be. To understand the paradox and make a judgement in terms of legitimacy, it is necessary to examine the phenomenon of American exceptionalism in more detail.

According to Michael Ignatieff (2005) the notion of exceptionalism comprises three elements:

(1) Exemptionalism from multilateral agreements such as Kyoto Protocol, Geneva Convention, agreements over the role of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Land Mines Treaty etc. United Nations (UN) instruments have no legal standing in the US and unlike member states of the European Union (EU) the American government does not allow for any curtailment of its national sovereignty in favour of international law standards (Ignatieff 2005: 4f). Similarly to some authoritarian Asian states, the ratification of international treaties and agreements presents a rather symbolic gesture rendering the actual legal status of these standards futile through reservations and exceptions (Koshy 1999: 23 n.53).
(2) The application of a double standard to judge different states depending on the respective relation and strategic interests leads to a lack of credibility and consistence (Ignatieff 2005: 7).
(3) Legal isolationism is supposed to ensure a continuous and stable jurisdiction, legitimate only through democratic decision making. This is closely tied to exemptionalism and stems from the concept of moral superiority (Ibid. 8f).

Different approaches offer different explanations for this behaviour. From a realist point of view the US acts this ways, simply because it can afford to do so. Despite attempts to contain US unilateralism by other states, the US has enough power to stand outside the rules ( Ibid. 12). The cultural approach is more complex and draws on history and tradition. From the founding of the republic, Americans have always perceived their nation as outstanding, implying a missionary conviction to universal significance of American values. “Messianism” (Ibid. 14) suggests to promote the achievements of American history, and to spread “good values” by being an example to the world (Ibid.). Furthermore, the American history, unlike in Europe, does not involve events directly affecting the country that would highlight the need of international cooperation and multilateralism. From an institutionalist perspective, American institutions are distinct and therefore not compatible with anything but their own jurisdiction. Institutional barriers such as federalism further impede the ratification of international human rights norms. Politically the huge influence of conservative and Christian attitudes conflicts with a universal understanding of rights other than the American one (Ibid. 17f). Neither of the approaches can explain the phenomenon sufficiently. A synthesis of all can give an understanding of policy decisions in the United States and help to grasp the rationale that determines specific foreign policy actions.

Mertus (2003) identifies four factor for legitimacy of American exceptionalism: determinacy, symbolic validation, coherence and adherence (Ibid. 380). The US human rights policy meets neither of these criterions. Their policy is not determined or valid because of the selective application of double standards. Volatility destroys coherence and non-ratification shows non-adherence to international standards. Thus the US fails to pass the test of legitimacy (Ibid. 381).

American Exceptionalism shows the discrepancy of particular and universal nations of legitimate right regimes. The dichotomy of internal and external affairs erodes ending in a broad intersection and interconnectedness. “Human rights [have] gone global by going local, by establishing its universal appeal in local languages of dignity and freedom.” (Ignatieff 2005: 25). The challenge for the international community will be to draw the line and limit the scope of interpretation to maintain the protective character of the human rights corpus. The problems arising from the limited instruments to enforce international law are pointed out by the exceptionalist attitude of the United States. Persisting exceptionalism from the US, as well as from other countries pose a serious problem to the credibility of universal human rights. Human rights then degenerate to a means to a specific end, namely the selective pursuit of various national interests. Forces of globalization and fragmentation have an ambivalent impact on the promotion on human rights. On the one hand, global interconnection and interdependence facilitate human rights promotion, on the other hand increasing pressures and complex interests, especially on the economic level, overshadow human rights concerns (McCormick 2000: 131f).


[1] The US is not the only country claiming that human rights should be a matter of domestic politics. The Asian value debate illustrates how governments use particularistic arguments to justify their practices and ensure national sovereignty. China, Malaysia and Singapore accentuated a particular Asian notion of human rights in the Bangkok Declaration in 1993, saying that the current human rights regime is a Western invention and not compatible with their respective cultures.

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Human Rights in US Foreign Policy
University of Otago  (New Zealand - University of Otago)
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Human, Rights, Foreign, Policy
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Sonja Meyer (Author), 2007, Human Rights in US Foreign Policy, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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