What Tony Blinken Means When He Says Human Rights are “Back”

Last week, when he introduced the State Department’s annual human rights report, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that “President Biden has committed to putting human rights back at the center of American foreign policy.”

Back? Human rights never were at the center of American foreign policy. Geopolitical and economic concerns have almost always come first. During the Cold War, the US repeatedly helped dictators suppress, or topple, leftist movements. It did so even though, as the Boston College political scientist Lindsey O’Rourke has noted, “many of these [leftist] groups had repeatedly committed themselves to working within a democratic framework, and, in some cases, U.S. policymakers even acknowledged this fact.” The University of Kansas’s Mariya Omelicheva, who has researched America’s interventions in foreign elections, told me a couple of years ago that she “cannot think of a case” of a Cold War intervention “in which America’s democracy concerns superseded its national-security concerns.”

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That’s not to say human rights never trump other US interests. In the rare cases where they do, it’s often because ordinary Americans demand it. During the Reagan era, the anti-apartheid movement pressured Congress into ending America’s economic ties to the white regime in South Africa, which the US had long supported as a bulwark against communism. Over the last half-decade, a grassroots movement has turned many Democratic politicians against Saudi Arabia’s murderous war in Yemen—laying the groundwork for Biden to curb the military support that Barack Obama began.

But most of the time, human rights do not drive American foreign policy. They justify American foreign policy. The US spotlights human rights abuses to rally opinion against adversaries that the US would be opposing anyway. Take the government of Iran. When America’s leaders denounce its brutality, they’re absolutely right. Ayatollah Khamenei and his henchmen deserve jail cells at the Hague. But if human rights drove American foreign policy toward Iran, the US wouldn’t have spent decades supporting the Shah, who according to Amnesty International tortured and executed thousands of political prisoners.

Human rights don’t drive US foreign policy toward China either. The Chinese Communist Party has been viciously squelching personal freedoms since it took power in 1949, yet the US government’s attitude toward it has shifted dramatically nonetheless. In the 1950s and 1960s, when Beijing was allied with the USSR, the CCP was among America’s foremost foes. Then, in the 1970s, after China broke with its Soviet patrons, relations between Washington and Beijing radically improved, although China’s human rights record remained awful. In 1989, days after the massacre in Tiananmen Square, George H.W. Bush said the US should “look beyond the moment to important and enduring aspects of this vital relationship for the United States.”

Now US-Chinese relations have fallen off a cliff, and Biden officials are loudly condemning Beijing for crushing democracy in Hong Kong and committing genocide in Xinjiang. I’m glad they are. But Hong Kong and Xinjiang aren’t the primary reason that Washington now treats China as an adversary. The primary reason is that China has grown powerful enough to challenge America’s global preeminence. How do we know? Because the chief architect of America’s new hardline toward China was Donald Trump, who reportedly told Xi Jinping that herding Uighurs into concentration camps was “exactly the right thing to do.” Trump turned US China policy in a sharply adversarial direction while barely even pretending to care about human rights.

That’s the problem Biden now seeks to rectify—Trump’s failure to talk about human rights. What distinguished Trump from other presidents was not primarily his policies. (His predecessors had also backed pro-US dictators in places like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain, and funded Israeli abuses of Palestinian rights; Trump just did so more crudely). What primarily distinguished Trump was his language—his refusal to use human rights as a cudgel against American foes. Blinken and the rest of the Biden team want to remedy that. They see the language of human rights as valuable instrument of American power, which Trump stupidly jettisoned.

I’m not suggesting there are no differences between Biden and Trump on human rights. Biden’s policies are obviously more humane at home: He’s not opposed to refugees entering the United States. And overseas, he’s somewhat more willing to prioritize human rights in places like Uganda or Myanmar, where the US has only modest geopolitical interests. But if you look at Blinken’s introduction to last week’s human rights report, where he focuses primarily on US adversaries like China, Russia, Belarus, Venezuela and Syria, it’s clear that the primary shift is rhetorical. Trump saw the discourse of human rights as largely irrelevant to America’s battles against its geopolitical foes. The Biden administration sees that discourse as vital.

That’s what Blinken means when he says human rights are “back at the center of American foreign policy.” They’re back at the center of the way America talks about foreign policy, which is a very different thing.

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Best,

Peter