In the early 1980s, while living in exile in West Germany, the late dissident Soviet astrophysicist Kronid Lyubarsky participated in a survey for a magazine about life in the Soviet Union. One question asked what the most productive US policy towards the USSR would be. “Firm pressure” on the Soviet Union to initiate domestic changes, was Lyubarsky’s response, adding that the US would need “patience in following this line since it doesn’t lead to immediate success”.
I thought of Lyubarsky’s response recently when Joe Biden criticised what he described as the “politically motivated” imprisonment of Alexei Navalny, a prominent Russian opposition figure, and approved an executive order imposing new sanctions on those responsible for the military coup in Myanmar. I thought of Lyubarsky’s calling for “patience”, while also thinking that such “firm pressure” from the Biden administration – whether rhetorical or economic – was bound to have little effect, let alone lead to “immediate success”.
Human rights and the self-appointed role of upholding them globally loom large in the US imagination. In his 2010 book, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, the historian Samuel Moyn argues that human rights in their contemporary form – universal and internationally protected rather than guaranteed by one’s national citizenship – gained primacy as a concept in the 1970s, as a moral response to disappointment with more radical political projects, such as the movements for national self-determination of the preceding decades. Human rights would now be applied universally and directly to individuals, sidelining governments and borders.
It was in the 1970s, too, Moyn points out, that President Carter attempted to make human rights a key feature of American foreign policy. The US has since become a prominent dispenser of what the historian Benjamin Nathans describes as an “international mode of moral judgement” – with America’s military power and its dominance of the global economy sitting comfortably alongside its assumption of moral leadership.
American censure of foreign leaders’ human rights abuses has rung especially hollow in the past four years. Donald Trump seemed unconcerned about such abuses, and in June last year told media that he did not sanction Chinese officials over the detention of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang because the US was in the “middle of a major trade deal” with China. Then there is the Trump administration’s human rights record at home – including overseeing the separation of migrant children from their families, which the United Nations said violated international law.
But however egregious and unorthodox Trump’s conduct and policies, the US’s moral authority – such as it was – began to weaken long before his election. During Barack Obama’s presidency more than 1,800 drone strikes were carried out, killing thousands, including civilians. When Abdel Fattah al-Sisi staged a coup in Egypt in 2013 and his security forces killed more than 1,000 protesters, Obama declared that we could not return to business as usual, and then, of course, we did.
American proselytising about the sanctity of human rights is largely ignored by the rest of the world in part because of a twofold hypocrisy. First, the US’s treatment of people within its own borders: from cruel and discriminatory immigration policies to systemic racism and police brutality against unarmed black people, to the laws that disenfranchise voters while we preach the importance of democracy. And second, its conduct abroad: the US has an illustrious history of supporting coups and funnelling resources to regimes that imprison dissidents and journalists. The selectivity of US condemnation of human rights abuses and oppression – governed by blatant national self-interest and geopolitical convenience – undermines any moral credibility.
To say that American denunciations lack moral force is not to deny that its measures have material consequences: they do. Harsh economic sanctions have caused extreme hardship to citizens of other countries, notably in Iran. US financial and military influence is intact and beyond doubt. The question is how to restore some moral ballast to its censure of foreign leaders: what can the US government say or do to demonstrate that it believes in the principles it espouses?
First and foremost, an administration that cared about human rights would ensure they were protected at home, since foreign policy begins with domestic practice. But a White House that cared about rights would also replace an emphasis on “firm pressure” on other countries with a more practical-minded foreign policy that demonstrates its alignment with the rights the US professes to care about.
In Russia’s case, that would mean focusing less on punitive sanctions, and more on steps to ensure that dirty money – the kind Navalny is dedicated to exposing – does not get laundered in US financial systems and institutions. It could also mean showing solidarity with victims of human rights abuses or those living under oppressive regimes. This might involve offering to take in refugees from Hong Kong, where democracy is currently under threat – as a bipartisan group of senators is currently attempting to do.
None of these actions, as Lyubarsky admonished some 40 years ago, will “lead to immediate success”. Yet on 4 February, Biden announced an end to US support of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen; on 10 February, Saudi Arabia released Loujain al-Hathloul, a women’s rights activist who had been imprisoned for over 1,000 days. Absolute success may require patience, but a more thoughtful foreign policy will quickly yield small victories and begin to repair America’s moral standing in the world.
This article appears in the 17 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, War against truth