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Essential Human Rights

Strategic goals and inviolable rights need not be mutually exclusive.

At the end of the pro-democracy movement in China a group of
At the end of the pro-democracy movement in China a group of Chinese Army tanks block an overpass on Changan Avenue leading to Tiananmen Square where the Communist Government carried out its final brutal nighttime crackdown on protestors just a few hours earlier. (Photo by Peter Charlesworth/LightRocket via Getty Images)

U.S. foreign policy is, or at least, should be, mostly about aiding and protecting the American people. However, helping others remains a worthy objective. Especially when they bravely confront brutal regimes in countries as diverse as China and Iran. In both cases political systems deserving of history’s famous trash bin continue to rule, jail, and, in the latter case, kill those willing to fight for basic liberties. The oppressed deserve sympathy and support.

Aiding them might seem to advance U.S. interests. After all, both governments are on Washington’s mega-naughty list and won’t be getting anything in their Christmas stockings this year. But despite the popular unrest, neither regime appears on the edge—at least yet, anyway. The People’s Republic of China has been around since 1949 and survived war, internal conflict, and mass starvation, which collectively killed tens of millions of people. Xi Jinping’s tyranny appears weaker than thought a month ago, but he won’t go away willingly. The Islamic Republic of Iran dates only from 1979, but has surmounted invasion, economic isolation, and constant threats of war. The clerical establishment overcame larger demonstrations in 2009, and alongside the revolutionary guards has been willing to kill children to retain power. This regime is one under siege, but it has not yet been pressed to the limit.


In both cases, human rights have been turned into a political weapon by the Republican Party. GOP leaders demand that the Biden administration assist the protestors, without explaining how. Policymakers who've caused humanitarian disasters in Iraq, Libya, and Yemen insist that this time they will get everything right. But do what? The ivory tower warriors who fill the nation’s capital enjoy sending others off to war. However, even charter members of Washington’s War Party appear to recognize that conflict with China would be a disaster. And the Iraq debacle has created at least some reluctance to battle Tehran.

Sanctions come next as a tool for intervention. A favorite today are personal penalties, typically through the Magnitsky Act. Sometimes criminals are inconvenienced, such as Hong Kong’s onetime Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who couldn’t get a bank account. However, no government ever surrendered so its officials could receive an American visa. So the faux humanitarians often sanction the entire economy. Republicans are most noted for putting human considerations aside in such cases, but their efforts are often boosted by Democratic support when politics dictates, such as involving Cuba.

Hence decades of sanctions against Havana, which President Donald Trump said would remain until the country went democratic. He exhibited no similar concern for liberty in Saudi Arabia or Egypt, headed by brutal dictators. Washington has also imposed immiserating sanctions on already starving people in Syria and Venezuela, as if doing so would convince their dictators to surrender. Years of steadily tougher sanctions on Sudan, Iran, and North Korea failed to force their compliance with U.S. demands.

One can argue that it is sometimes necessary to weaken dangerous regimes, such as Russia, despite the humanitarian cost. However, all the forgoing governments can be deterred by threats of retaliation. All but Moscow are decrepit developing states that pose little threat to America. Sanctions have done nothing to make any of these countries democratic. Indeed, such penalties often appear intended mostly to make their advocates feel good about themselves.

Last comes diplomacy and moral suasion. Although this approach can have some good effect, even rhetorical attacks on foreign regimes often cause nationalistic officials backed by equally nationalistic populations to dig in. Sometimes outside criticism causes oppressed peoples to stand with their governments. Especially problematic are policies that look to be efforts at regime change. Of course, many foreign governments deserve to fall. Unsurprisingly, however, they typically don’t share that view. When their existence is threatened, ruling regimes are more likely to eschew reforms, escalate enforcement, and cut foreign connections.


Even so, Yang Jianli, a protestor in Tiananmen Square in 1989, recently contended: “the Biden administration and other Western governments should give unequivocal and specific warnings to China about the consequences of any bloody crackdown. The international community could hold out the threat of additional economic sanctions, greater aid for Taiwan and a crackdown on the offshore wealth of China’s top political families.”

There might be little harm in trying, but the U.S. already has declared economic war and is committed to decoupling in important areas, such as semiconductor chips. Winning broad support for sanctions on the allied side has not been easy. In China’s view, Washington already is shifting its traditional position on Taiwan and promoting a more separatist strategy. So, Beijing already expects the U.S. to do more for Taipei. Targeting Russia’s oligarchs has had no impact on Moscow’s policy. But Washington’s efforts likely have encouraged vulnerable Chinese elites to begin trying to “sanction-proof” their holdings.

The U.S. shouldn’t give up attempting to improve human rights. But a more practical strategy is needed.

First, be humble and realistic. There is nothing that the U.S. can do to make a rapidly evolving, highly nationalistic, tightly controlled country of 1.4 billion people into a democracy. At most, Americans can help the Chinese people once they start transforming their nation. Liberating Iran is no easier. Recent demonstrations might be the harbinger of significant change, but maybe not. The decision to suppress the 1989 democratic protests in Tiananmen Square (and elsewhere) was a close-run affair. A few months later the East German regime hesitated when challenged and refused to shoot; it then was run over by history. Romanian diehards did shoot, and they lost too. During the Arab Spring, people overthrew dictatorships in Egypt and Tunisia. However, forces of reaction ultimately reasserted themselves—quickly in the first and last year in the second. China’s and Iran’s ultimate courses are unknowable.

Second, do no harm. Washington shouldn’t needlessly embrace or subsidize tyrannical regimes. Of course, it is sometimes necessary to deal with ugly governments—the U.S. allied with Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union against Adolph Hitler’s Germany in World War II. There is even a reasonable case for selling weapons to Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates for defense against Iran—but not to pursue aggressive war against Yemen. However, American presidents should treat such interlocutors with cold civility. Consider the Cold War summits between Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev: None of the sword-dancing, hand-holding, and shameless flattery typically accorded, say, Saudi rulers.

Third, choose security over human rights only when essential. Thankfully, the Cold War is over, reducing the need to make such compromises. The world really will not end if Saudi Arabia makes a deal with the PRC. Riyadh still will sell oil to the highest bidder. If the U.S. ends aid to Egypt, what is the latter going to do? Declare war on Israel? Blockade the Suez Canal? Cairo can’t even easily throw itself into Russia’s arms, having committed itself to American weapons long ago.

Fourth, do not treat human rights as mere geopolitical collateral damage. Perhaps the most brutal example of this approach was then U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright’s cynical “we think the price is worth it.” She treated the alleged death of half a million children as a result of sanctions on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as a minor inconvenience. This approach continues today. The Trump administration and Congress imposed immiserating sanctions on an already impoverished population in Syria, seeking to thwart reconstruction efforts after fighting ceased. This was supposed to force the dictator, Bashar al-Assad, from power. U.S. ambassador James Jeffrey, who admitted to misleading Trump about U.S. troop deployments in Syria to maintain the illegal U.S. occupation, said another goal was to create a “quagmire” for Russia, reducing the Syrian people to a means for America’s ends.

Fifth, demonstrate a genuine commitment to human rights by holding friends and foes to the same standard. If there are serious reasons to treat them differently, explain that decision. Presidents and legislators on the right wax eloquent about (very real) human rights violations in China, Iran, and Cuba while slobbering over the feet of Egyptian, Saudi, and Central Asian dictators. Some on the left offer rapturous praise of the Castros and mark an embarrassed silence regarding China while skewering the usual right-wing autocracies.

Sixth, the U.S. should model the behavior that it promotes. Over the last three decades no government has been more aggressive internationally than the U.S. or killed as many innocent people. American policymakers insist that they meant well, but that is of little solace to the millions of Iraqis, Yemenis, Afghans, and others killed, wounded, and displaced. The U.S. need not be perfect. However, it should seriously weigh the price paid by others. Two decades after blowing up Iraq, that nation is still in political shambles. Yet no American civilian or military official of note has been held responsible for years of carnage.

Seventh, be practical in pursuit of principle. Build coalitions with allies and friends. Doing so enhances influence and credibility. Set realistic objectives. Xi will not voluntarily dismantle the CCP dictatorship. He might make some tailored concessions if convinced that doing so is in his interest. Savor even modest gains. It might not be possible to save an entire people. But it still might be possible to save some people.

In a better world, human rights would be universally recognized. Instead, we must promote respect for the life, liberty, and dignity of others. Government’s chief responsibility is to those whom it represents, including those who defend the nation and political community within. Nevertheless, others may be helped as well. There is much wisdom in the Biblical injunction that “as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people” (Galatians 6:10). Alas, understanding when that opportunity arrives, and how best to respond, has proved to be a formidable challenge. In cases such as Iran and China, issuing a statement and virtue signaling are easy. Saving a life and freeing a country are not.


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