Biden and Human Rights – Stabroek News

By Joseph S. Nye

CAMBRIDGE – During Joe Biden’s long career in the US Senate, he established a record of supporting human rights as the goal of American foreign policy. Now, as president, Biden’s commitment in this area is being put to the test.

Foreign policy involves compromises among many issues, including security, economic interests, and other values. But when it comes to human rights, compromises often lead to accusations of hypocrisy or cynicism.

Consider the 2018 killing of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul. Former President Donald Trump has been criticized for ignoring clear evidence of cruel crime in order to maintain good relations with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, better known as MBS.

The Liberals criticized Trump’s mild response to Khashoggi’s murder as repentant and relentless transactions of the facts. Even the conservative Wall Street Journal meant that “we are not aware of any President, or even ruthless pragmatists like Richard Nixon or Lyndon Johnson, who would have written a public statement like this without so much as a grace note about American values ​​and principles . . ”

Trump considered access to oil, the sale of military equipment, and regional stability of paramount importance, but he ignored that upholding values ​​and principles that are attractive to others is also an important national interest. Protecting human rights tells the world who Americans are, and enhances America’s soft power, or ability to get what one wants through attraction rather than coercion or payment.

Combining these different types of interests in foreign policy requires compromise, which leads to criticism of how the compromises are struck. During the 2020 campaign, Biden criticized Trump for turning a blind eye to the role of MBS in Khashoggi’s assassination. After becoming president, the Director of National Intelligence authorized the release of a decentralized report that blamed MBS, banned 76 Saudi individuals from the United States, and curtailed American weapons use in the Saudi war in Yemen.

But liberal critics argued that Biden should have gone further and announced that the United States would not deal with MBS, thereby pressing King Salman to install another crown prince. Many Kingdom experts argue that this kind of regime change is beyond American ability. Unlike Trump, Biden called American values, but raised questions about whether he struck the right balance.

Similar issues have arisen regarding Biden’s policy towards China. Biden criticized Chinese President Xi Jinping for not having “a democratic bone in his body,” and when Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan met with their Chinese counterparts in Anchorage, they criticized rights violations China’s human in Xinjiang and the oppression of democracy and its defenders in Hong Kong. On Russia, Biden agreed with a statement that President Vladimir Putin was a “murderer.”

And yet, when it came time to invite leaders to a US climate summit, Xi and Putin were on the list (though it was a Saudi invitation to King Salman, not his son). Was this hypocrisy, or did it reflect a realistic assessment that climate change is a major and unmanageable threat without the co-operation of the governments of these countries?

For example, China is now the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and Saudi Arabia sits on the largest reservoir of hydrocarbons. There can be no solution to our climate problem if they are not on board. We will have to learn the importance of exercising power with others as well as over others if we are to deal with ecological interdependence. That means working with China on climate and pandemic issues even as we criticize its record on human rights.

How then can we decide whether our leaders make “the best moral choices” in the circumstances? As I argued in my book Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump, we can start by ensuring that we judge them in terms of “three-dimensional ethics” that consider intentions, means, and consequences, and by drawing from three foreign policy thinking schools: realism, liberalism, and cosmopolitanism, respectively.

Human rights should not be framed as setting values ​​against the national interests of the United States, because values ​​are part of the American national interest. We should start with reality, but not stop there. Within the sphere of the possible, we should assert our values ​​in the way that they are most likely to make a difference. At the same time, if we do not start with realism, we will soon discover that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

The goals that US presidents have sought over the years to reflect the pursuit of justice at the international level are not the same as at home. In the 1941 Atlantic Charter (one of the founding documents of the liberal international order), US President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill declared their commitment to freedom from want and fear. But Roosevelt did not seek to transfer his domestic New Deal to the international level. Even the famous liberal philosopher John Rawls believed that the conditions for his theory of justice applied only to domestic society.

At the same time, Rawls argued that liberal societies have duties beyond their borders, including mutual aid and respect for organizations that ensure basic human rights while allowing people in a diverse world to determine their own affairs as much as possible. Therefore, we should ask whether a leader’s goals include a vision that expresses broadly attractive values ​​at home and abroad, but which prudently balances those values ​​and assesses risks so that there is a reasonable prospect of their success.

This means we judge a leader based not only on his character and intentions, but also on contextual intelligence in promoting values. So far, Biden is passing that test.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021.