Saturday, June 18, 2011

Human Rights Diplomacy – a means to an end?

Many of us, the first-generation immigrants, have had experience with distinct social, political and economic systems.  Many of us, proud of our cultural heritage and at the same time, have been awed by the rich opportunities and attracted to the values and systems of America – liberty, freedom, rule of law, democracy, free enterprise, and safety nets like social security, Medicare.   

When it comes to America’s international relationships and foreign policy however, many of us have particularly strong and diverse feelings with each of our first hand experiences. There have been a long history of controversies and appearance of double/multiple standards that make us wonder from time to time if America is "a shining beacon on a hill" or a hegemony sugar coated with moral imperatives?  I myself was hit with these questions when in 1979 U.S. government reversed its long standing position and recognized the Communist China instead of the Nationalist Chinese government in Taiwan.

In his 2010 book Ideal Illusions: how the U.S. government co-opted human rights, historian and foreign-policy analyst James Peck gave an in-depth account of the evolution, thus the continuity, of American global vision and how rights-based individualism became the central piece of the rhetoric of U.S. foreign policy.   Peck’s opening of the book sums it nicely, quoting French political philosopher Betrand de Jouvenel (On Power: The Natural History of its Growth, 1948): “Follow an idea through from its birth to its triumph, and it becomes clear that it came to power only at the price of an astounding degradation of itself.  The result is not reason which has found a guide but passion which has found a flag.”  And that flag has been Human Rights since late 1970s, as President Jimmy Carter proclaimed “Human rights is the soul of American foreign policy” in Dec 1978 on the 30th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted by the United Nations).

We learned that a power vacuum developed when the British Empire began to disintegrate in early 20th century.  It took WWII and President Roosevelt to steer America away from the earlier isolationism and non-interventionism and to begin America’s global quest to form a new world order.  In the ensuing 30 year fight of the War of Ideas (to counter communism’s appeal advanced by Soviet Union), abstract notion of freedom and fears of the competing ideology that would end American ways of life were transformed into anticommunism and modernization with direct and indirect U.S. aids that outspent Soviet’s. 

When more than a decade long military and political interventions at Vietnam ended with the withdraw, the U.S. national security establishment did not stray nor withdraw from the notion of the long term strategic interests and benefits of an American-centered globalism, despite the embarrassing ethical and moral failures throughout the war.

We learned that building on the continuing anticommunism fever and the preaches for the ideal of human rights by President Jimmy Carter,  Regan’s Administration in the 80’s pushed forward forcefully the notion of democratization that linked human rights and American interests including the corporate business ones. Proxy wars were justified and waged in Central and South America, and selected places in other continents. 

President Regan, the masterful ideological warrior, further raised the antes in every direction and successfully overwhelmed the Soviet Union.  The net result was that American foreign policy both in strategy and in tactics, began to converged to a set of interweaved and inter-dependent components that enjoyed the supports, albeit not immune to criticisms, from left to right, from progressive to conservative, from individuals to business, and from dove to hawks, human rights activists included.  Every camp was able to find something in it that they wanted to route for and were more willing to look other ways.     

We also learned that the web began to be completed during the Bush and Clinton years when U.S. linked freedom, human rights, and democracy with commerce.  Market capitalism is an integral part of advancement of democracy and human rights as products and services are traded across the world.  The ever popular NGO or Non-Governmental Organization (which could be funded fully or partly by a government) are now actively funding specific activities and exerting significant influences in a distributed fashion that promote particular causes and values.  Right-based and interest-based acts, be it U.S. national security interest or multination corporations’, are becoming more difficult to delineate which is the means or end as they became hopelessly intertwined. 

One thing seems certain however: the perceived double or multiple standards will continue.  If you are perplexed with it, don’t be.  After all, the priority and responsibility of all elected officials of U.S. government, from the President and on down, is to care for America’s interest.  At end of day, interventions, justified and welcomed under humanitarianism or any other name to aid and uphold the human rights of the victims, were necessarily constrained and applied selectively under complex calculation and trades of short-term and long-term interests of U.S.  The scenes are replayed over and over again including during the latest round of Middle East peace negotiation and Arab Spring.

In this parallel track of war of words, “civil society” and “need for reform” are reserved for any one that is not conforming to the “universal values and systems” championed by U.S. and western world.  Calls for “open society” and “becoming a member of global community” are applied to those who resist the adoption of the democratic political system and participation of the global trades and consumer/producer supply chain led by U.S. and the west.  “War on terror” can be a war against those who threaten the stability with violent means as seen and defined by the incumbent power regardless their grievance and desperation.  “Failed states” are those misbehaving governments and “nation building” is to right the wrongs according to the world order and international norm dominated by U.S.

To be fair however, whether you believe in the ideals or in the conspiracy theory of hegemony, the reality is that the game has been and will continue to be played in such a fashion regardless who is the superpower of the time.  America is not perfect but it has been a responsible world leader with a clear vision and moral values.  One may question the motives and suspect the self-interest of U.S.  One may take exceptions of the overemphasis of (individual) human rights at the expense of basic needs and equality for some.  One may argue the same standard should not be applied to other less fortunate and less developed with different culture.  But no one can deny these ideals are sound and desired.  And no one has yet to articulate a more attractive and sustaining alternative.

A whole chapter of James Peck’s book was devoted to Human Rights and China.  Being poised to co-compete with U.S. in decades to come with its recent growth, China must respond to several severe challenges before it can be considered a legit world leader: What is its vision of a new multi-polarity and multi-culture world order? How should the individual rights and the social equality be balanced and maintained?  How would a harmonious society and equitable distribution of wealth be realized under its dominant state power? Will state capitalism and Confucianism be an adequate substitution for market capitalism, democracy backed with an adversarial legal system?  Will China be capable of being a strong and moral world power without the missionary ethos of the west?  How would it balance nationalism and globalism and the interests of other nations’ and its own?

Talk to you soon!

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