When I first joined the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service, I was optimistic about the positive role the United States played in the world. By the time I left not quite a decade later, I was haunted by how dangerous our shortsighted foreign policy can be.
What worried me most was how casual the U.S. government was about arming, training, and resourcing dictators, tyrants and local thugs all over the world. We typically justified this in the name of stability or maintaining influence, but pursued it with shockingly little accountability for the negative consequences.
I didn’t understand how we could reconcile the human rights values we claimed to champion with the human rights offenders we championed too. After I walked away from my career, I wanted to know more.
I was a history major with a law degree. I hadn’t studied international relations, so on-the-job training was my foreign affairs education. Freed up from the daily rigor of diplomatic work on the front lines, I pored through books and academic articles on what drives what we do around the world.
I was shocked to learn that human rights as an element of U.S. foreign policy was barely older than I was.
President Jimmy Carter first formalized human rights in our foreign policy in 1977. Prior to that, our government didn’t even pretend to factor it in. Though Carter’s foreign policy will be remembered more for the disasters of the Iran hostage situation and oil crisis, it was his approach to human rights that left a truly lasting mark.
I’ve thought a lot about that legacy since President Carter entered hospice care. I’ve also thought about how much better off we would be if that legacy had gained more traction.
“Our American values are not luxuries but necessities,” he said in his 1981 farewell address. “Our common vision of a free and just society is our greatest source of cohesion at home and strength abroad.”
President Carter believed it was not only our duty to live up to these principles at home and overseas but that it was good policy too, serving our own interests. He understood that providing political, economic and military support to governments that abused their people might stabilize specific regimes in the short term but would ultimately foster insurgencies and violence, creating bad outcomes in the long run.
Carter sought to institutionalize human rights within our foreign policy decision-making structures, so that it would not only …read more
Source:: The Mercury News