Tag Archives: Jimmy Carter

Criticizing Government Was What They Knew How To Do

 

Paul Sabin, Public Citizen:

The Attack on Big Government and the Remaking of American Liberalism

(W.W. Norton & Co., 2021)

1965 marked the highpoint for Democratic President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program, an ambitious set of policy and legislative initiatives which envisioned using the machinery of the federal government to alleviate poverty, combat racial injustice and address other pressing national needs.  Johnson was coming off a landslide victory in the November 1964 presidential election, having carried 44 states and the District of Columbia with the highest percentage of the popular vote of any presidential candidate in over a century.  Yet a decade and a half later, in January 1981, Republican Ronald Reagan, after soundly defeating Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter,  took the presidential oath of office declaring “government is not the solution, it is the problem.”

How did government in the United States go in a fifteen-year period from being the solution to society’s ills to the cause of its problems?  How, for that matter, did the Democratic Party go from dominating the national political debate up through the mid-1960s to surrendering the White House to a former actor who had been considered too extreme to be a viable presidential candidate?  These are questions Yale University professor Paul Sabin poses at the outset of his absorbing Public Citizens: The Attack on Big Government and the Remaking of American Liberalism.  Focusing on the fifteen-year period 1965-1980, Sabin proffers answers centered on Ralph Nader and the “public interest” movement which Nader spawned.

1965 was also the year Nader rocketed to national prominence with his assault on automobile safety, Unsafe at Any Speed.  General Motors notoriously assisted Nader in his rise by conducting a concerted campaign to harass the previously obscure author.  From there, Nader and the lawyers and activists in his movement – often called “Nader’s Raiders” — turned to such matters as environmentalism, consumer safety and consumer rights, arguing that the government agencies charged with regulating these matters invariably came to be captured by the very industries they were designed to regulate, without the voice of the consumer or end user being heard.  “Why has business been able to boss around the umpire” (p.86) was one of Nader’s favorite rhetorical questions.

Because of both industry influence and bureaucratic ineffectiveness, government regulatory authority operated in the public interest only when pushed and prodded from the outside, Nader reasoned.  In Nader’s world, moreover, the Democratic and Republican parties were two sides of the same corrupt coin, indistinguishable in the degree to which they were both beholden to special corporate interests — “Tweddle Dee and Tweddle Dum,” as he liked to put it.

Reagan viewed government regulation from an altogether different angle.  Whereas Nader believed that government, through effective regulation of the private sector, could help make consumer goods safer, and air and water cleaner, Reagan sought to liberate the private sector from regulation.  He championed a market-oriented capitalism designed to “undermine, rather than invigorate, federal oversight” (p.167).  Yet, Sabin’s broadest argument is that Nader’s insistence over the course of a decade and a half that federal agencies used their powers for “nefarious and destructive purposes” (p.167) — — the “attack on big government” portion of his  title – rendered plausible Reagan’s superficially similar attack.

The “remaking of American liberalism” portion of Sabin’s sub-title might have better been termed “unmaking,” specifically the unmaking of the political liberalism rooted in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal – the liberalism which Johnson sought to emulate and build upon in his Great Society, based on a strong and active federal government. Following in the New Deal tradition, Roosevelt’s Democratic party controlled the White House for all but eight years between 1933 and 1969.  Yet, when Reagan assumed the presidency in 1981, New Deal liberalism had clearly surrendered its claim to national dominance.

Most interpretations of how and why New Deal liberalism lost its clout are rooted in the 1960s, with the decade’s anti-Vietnam war and Civil Rights movements as the principal actors.  The Vietnam war separated older blue-collar Democrats, who often saw the war in the same patriotic terms as World War II, from a younger generation of anti-war activists who perceived no genuine US interests in the conflict and no meaningful difference in defense and foreign policy between Democrats and Republicans.  The Civil Rights movement witnessed the defection of millions of white Democrats, unenthusiastic about the party’s endorsement of full equality for African Americans, to the Republican Party.

Nader and the young activists following him were also “radicalized by the historical events of the 1960s, particularly the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War” (p. p.48), Sabin writes.  These were their “defining issues,” shaping “their view of the government and their ambitions for their own lives” (p.51).   We cannot imagine Nader’s movement “emerging in the form that it did separate from civil rights and the war” (p.48).  But by elaborating upon the role of the public interest movement in the breakdown of New Deal liberalism and giving more attention to the 1970s, Sabin adds nuance to conventional interpretations of that breakdown.

The enigmatic Nader is the central figure in Sabin’s narrative.  Much of the book analyzes how Nader and his public interest movement interacted with the administrations of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter, along with brief treatment of the Reagan presidency and that of Bill Clinton.  The Carter years, 1977-1981, revealed the public interest movement’s most glaring weakness: its “inability to come to terms with the compromises inherent in running the executive branch” (p.142), as Sabin artfully puts it.

Carter was elected in 1976, when the stain of the Watergate affair and the 1974 resignation of Richard Nixon hovered over American politics, with trust in government at a low point.  Carter believed in making government regulation more efficient and effective, which he saw as a means of rebuilding public trust.   Yet, he failed to craft what Sabin terms a “new liberalism” that could “champion federal action while also recognizing government’s flaws and limitations” (p.156).

That failure was due in no small measure to frequent and harsh criticism emanating from public interest advocates, whose critique of the Carter administration, Sabin writes, “held those in power up against a model of what they might be, rather than what the push and pull of political compromise and struggle allowed” (p.160).  Criticizing government power was “what they knew how to do, and it was the role that they had defined for themselves”  (p.156). Metaphorically, it was “as if liberals took a bicycle apart to fix it but never quite figured out how to get it running again” (p.xvii).

 * * *

Sabin starts by laying out the general parameters of New Deal liberalism: a technocratic faith that newly created administrative agencies and the bureaucrats leading them would act in the public interest by serving as a counterpoint to the power of private, especially corporate, interests.  By the mid-1950s, the liberal New Deal conception of “managed capitalism” had evolved into a model based on what prominent economist John Kenneth Galbraith termed “countervailing powers,” in which large corporations, held in balance by the federal regulatory state, “would check each other’s excesses through competition, and powerful unions would represent the interests of workers.  Government would play a crucial role, ensuring that the system did not tilt too far in one direction or the other” (p.7-8).

Nader’s public interest movement was built around a rejection of Galbraith’s countervailing power model.  The model failed to account for the interests of consumers and end users, as the economist himself admitted later in his career.  If there was to be a countervailing power, Nader theorized, it would have to come through the creation of “independent, nonbureaucratic, citizen-led organizations that existed somewhat outside the traditional American power structure” (p.59).  Only such organizations provided the means to keep power “insecure” (p.59), as Nader liked to say.

Nader’s vision could be described broadly as “ensuring safety in every setting where Americans might find themselves: workplace, home, doctor’s office, highway, or just outside, breathing the air”  (p.36).  In a 1969 essay in the Nation, Nader termed car crashes, workplace accidents, and diseases the “primary forms of violence that threatened Americans” (p.75), far exceeding street crime and urban unrest.  For Nader, environmental and consumer threats revealed the “pervasive failures and corruption of American industry and government” (p.76).

Nader was no collectivist, neither a socialist nor a New Dealer.  He emphasized open and competitive markets, small private businesses, and especially an activated citizenry — the “public citizens” of his title.  More than any peer, Nader sought to “create institutions that would mobilize and nurture other citizen activists” (p.35).  To that end, Nader founded dozens of public interest organizations, which were able to attract idealistic young people — lawyers, engineers, scientists, and others, overwhelmingly white, largely male — to dedicate their early careers to opposing the “powerful alliance between business and government” (p.24).

Nader envisioned citizen-led public interest organizations serving as a counterbalance not only to business and government but also to labor.  Although Nader believed in the power of unions to represent workers, he was “deeply skeptical that union leaders would be reliable agents for progressive reform”  (p.59).  Union bosses in Nader’s view “too often positioned themselves as partners with industry and government, striking bargains that yielded economic growth, higher wages, and unions jobs at the expense of the health and well-being of workers, communities, and the environment” (p.59).   Nader therefore “forcefully attacked the unions for not doing enough to protect worker safety and health or to allow worker participation in governance” (p.64).

Nader‘s Unsafe at Any Speed was modeled after Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking environmental tract Silent Spring, to the point that it was termed the “Silent Spring of traffic safety”  (p.23).  Nader’s auto safety advocacy, Sabin writes, emerged from “some of the same wellsprings as the environmental movement, part of an increasingly shared postwar concern about the harmful and insidious impacts of new technologies and processes” (p.23).  In 1966, a year after publication of Unsafe at Any Speed. Congress passed two landmark pieces of legislation, the Traffic Safety Act and the Highway Safety Act, which forced manufacturers to design safer cars and pressed states to carry out highway safety programs.  Nader then branched out beyond auto safety to tackle issues like meat inspection, natural-gas pipelines, and radiation safety.

Paradoxically, the Nixon years were among the most fruitful for Nader and the public interest movement.  Ostensibly pro-business and friendly with blue-collar Democrats, Nixon presided over a breathtaking expansion of federal regulatory authority until his presidency was pretermitted by the Watergate affair.  The Environmental Protection Agency was created in 1970, consolidating several smaller federal units.  New legislation which Nixon signed regulated air and water pollution, energy production, endangered species, toxic substances, and land use — “virtually every sector of the US economy” (p.114), Sabin writes.

The key characteristics of Nader-influenced legislation were deadlines and detailed mandates, along with authority for citizen suits and judicial review, a clear break from earlier regulatory strategies.  The tough legislation signaled a “profound and pervasive distrust of government even as it expanded federal regulatory powers” (p.82).   Nader and the public interest movement went after Democrats in Congress with a fervor at least equal to that with which they attacked Republican-led regulatory agencies.  Nader believed that “you didn’t attack your enemy if you wanted to accomplish something, you attacked your friend”  (p.82).

In the early 1970s, the public interest movement targeted Democratic Maine Senator Edmund Muskie, the party’s nominee for Vice-President in 1968, whose support for the environmental movement had earned him the moniker “Mr. Pollution Control.” Declaring his environmental halo unwarranted, the movement sought to take down a man who clearly wanted to ride the environmental issue to the White House.  Nader’s group also went after long-time liberal Democrat Jennings Randolph of West Virginia over coal-mining health and safety regulations.  The adversarial posture toward everyone in power, Democrat as well as Republican, continued into the short interim administration of Gerald Ford, who assumed the presidency in the wake of the Watergate scandal.  And it continued unabated during the administration of Jimmy Carter.

As the Democratic nominee for president, Carter had conferred with Nader during the 1976 campaign and thought he had the support of the public interest movement when he entered the White House in January 1977.  Many members of the movement took positions in the new administration, where they could shape the agencies they had been pressuring.  The new president sought to incorporate the public interest movement’s critiques of government into a “positive vision for government reform,” promoting regulatory approaches that “cut cost and red tape without sacrificing legitimate regulatory goals” (p.186).

Hoping to introduce more flexible regulatory strategies that could achieve environmental and health protection goals at lower economic cost, Carter sacrificed valuable political capital by clashing with powerful congressional Democrats over wasteful and environmentally destructive federal projects. Yet, public interest advocates faulted Carter for his purported lack of will more than they credited him for sacrificing his political capital for their causes.  They saw the administration’s questioning of regulatory costs and the redesign of government programs as “simply ways to undermine those agencies.” (p.154).   Their lack of enthusiasm for Carter severely undermined his reelection bid in the 1980 campaign against Ronald Reagan.

Reagan’s victory “definitively marked the end of the New Deal liberal period, during which Americans had optimistically looked to the federal government for solutions” (p.165), Sabin observes.  Reagan and his advisors “vocally rejected, and distanced themselves from, Carter’s nuanced approach to regulation”  (p.172). To his critics, Reagan appeared to be “trying to shut down the government’s regulatory apparatus” (p.173).

But in considering the demise of New Deal liberalism, Sabin persuasively demonstrates that the focus on Reagan overlooks how the post-World War II administrative state “lost its footing during the 1970s” (p.165).    The attack on the New Deal regulatory state that culminated in Reagan’s election, usually attributed to a rising conservative movement, was also “driven by an ascendant liberal public interest movement” (p.166).   Sabin’s bottom line: blaming conservatives alone for the end of the New Deal is “far too simplistic” (p.165).

* * *

Sabin mentions Nader’s 2000 presidential run on the Green Party ticket only at the end and only in passing.  Although the Nader-inspired public interest movement had wound down by then, Nader gained widespread notoriety that year when he gathered about 95,000 votes in Florida, a state which Democratic nominee Al Gore lost officially by 537 votes out of roughly six million cast (with no small amount of assistance from a controversial 5-4 Supreme Court decision).  Nader’s entire career had been a rebellion against the Democratic Party in all its iterations, and his quixotic run in 2000 demonstrated that he had not outgrown that rebellion.  His presidential campaign took his “lifelong criticism of establishment liberalism to its logical extreme” (p.192).

Thomas H. Peebles

Paris, France

May 13, 2022

 

5 Comments

Filed under American Politics, Political Theory, Politics, United States History

The Case for Evidence-Based Optimism on International Human Rights

 

Kathryn Sikkink, Evidence for Hope:

Making Human Rights Work in the 21st Century

(Princeton University Press) 

The idea of international human rights – rights that transcend national boundaries and state sovereignty – crystallized in the post-World War II period with the adoption of the initial charter of the United Nations in 1945 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948.  Promulgated under the auspices of the United Nations, the UDHR is considered the founding text of today’s international human rights law.  As Kathryn Sikkink observes in Evidence for Hope: Making Human Rights Work in the 21st Century, there is a compelling simplicity to the idea of international protection for human rights: “if your government fails to protect your rights, you have somewhere else to turn for recourse” (p.57).

Today, there are several treaties and conventions supplementing and complementing the UDHR.  Almost all the world’s countries have ratified some or all of these instruments, while numerous international and non-governmental organizations, institutions, and practitioners monitor compliance and otherwise seek to advance the international human rights agenda across the globe.  The idea of international human rights has become, Sikkink writes, “one of the dominant moral and political discourses in the world today” (p.8).  And yet.

The general public seems convinced that human rights abuses are worsening and widening across the globe, not diminishing, and there is much to support this view in just about any edition of a daily newspaper: China’s assault on its predominantly Muslim Uyghur population; crackdowns on democracy proponents in Myanmar and Hong Kong; refugee crises brought about by civil wars in Syria, Yemen and Ethiopia; extra-judicial killings in the Philippines; and Russian targeting of political dissidents, to name only a few.  Moreover, one year ago, the respected watchdog organization Human Rights Watch issued a withering report on the United States, finding that it was moving “backwards” on human rights, flouting international human rights and humanitarian law.

In addition, there is no shortage of academics taking aim at the international human rights movement.  Assiduous readers of this blog will recall Stephen Hopwood’s, Endtimes for Human Rights, reviewed here in 2016.  Eric Posner has produced a work with an equally gloomy title, The Twilight of Human Rights Law.  And Samuel Moyn’s Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World was the subject of an extensive roundtable exchange that my colleagues at the Tocqueville 21 blog organized in 2018.  These and other works make different points, but together constitute what might be termed “human rights pessimism,” a now-substantial body of thought calling into question both the legitimacy and effectiveness of the post-World War II human rights movement.

Sikkink, Professor of Human Rights Policy at Harvard Kennedy School of Government, seeks to counter the various manifestations of human rights pessimism with “evidence-based optimism,” an optimism grounded “not on wishful thinking, but on an effort to understand more comprehensively the strengths and weaknesses of human rights data” (p.13).  She describes her purpose as “not to deflect criticism or to diminish concern with human rights crises, but to clarify some of the terms of the debate, the types of comparisons being used, and the kinds of evidence that would be more or less persuasive in supporting and evaluating claims” (p.8).

Methodically, but with a scholarly zest, Sikkink scrutinizes the pessimists’ challenges to the distinct but related issues of the legitimacy and the effectiveness of the modern human rights movement.  In this context, legitimacy turns principally on the notion that forms the crux of Hopgood’s case against the modern human rights movement: that its core principles are the product of the world’s most prosperous countries, especially those from Western Europe and North America, imposed upon its least prosperous ones, in Asia, Africa and Latin America – the “Global North” and “Global South” respectively, to use common shorthand.  Sikkink responds by demonstrating the often overlooked contributions of diplomats, lawyers, and intellectuals from the Global South to the body of thought that preceded the UN Charter and the UDHR, along with their contributions to those instruments and to the development of international human rights law after promulgation of the UDHR.

Measuring human rights effectiveness and such related matters as “progress,” “results,” and “success” constitute what Sikkink terms the “single biggest unrecognized and unnamed source of disagreement among human rights scholars and within human rights movements” (p.31).  Such measurement requires rigorous application of social science methodologies, Sikkink insists.  She gives unsatisfactory grades to most of the human rights pessimists, primarily because they frequently measure not on an empirical basis, using qualitative and quantitative data, but rather against an ideal standard of what would be commendable in a more perfect world.

* * *

Sikkink lays out a convincing case that the international human rights movement’s origins lie at least as much in the Global South as in the Global North — maybe more.  She places particular emphasis upon the Latin American contribution to the movement.  The idea of international protection of human rights, she suggests, probably originated with the early 20th century Chilean jurist Alejandro Álvarez, who in 1917 proposed the idea of international protection for individual human rights to the American Institute of International Law.

Álvarez saw international protection for human rights as a means to bolster rather than undercut state sovereignty, particularly as a weapon for the weaker states of Latin America to contain the greater raw power of the United States.  Álvarez’s ideas were later taken up and expanded by other jurists and scholars from both Latin America and Europe.  This circulation of ideas, Sikkink writes with Hopgood in mind, is “very different from the crude understanding of some scholars today, who claim that human rights ideas all started in the Global North and were imposed upon the Global South” (p.63).

At the San Francisco Conference of 1945 which established the framework for the UN, the British and French delegations resisted formal declarations of rights out of concern for their colonies; American representatives worried about Southern legislators interested above all in protecting racial separation; and the Soviet Union was less than enthusiastic about formal declarations.  Despite this resistance, the Charter emerged with seven human rights references, a testament to the work of delegations from outside  the Global North,  especially those from Latin America. The references reflected “not the language of the great powers,” Sikkink writes, “but rather that of the Global South.”  They were “adopted by the great powers in response to pressure from small states and civil society” (p.71).  Without these references, Sikkink finds it unlikely that the UDHR would have been drafted at all.

But the UDHR was not the first detailed enumeration of rights adopted by an inter-governmental organization.  Several months earlier, in April 1948 in Bogotá, Colombia, 20 Latin American countries and the United States approved the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man.  All of the rights enumerated in the American Declaration appeared subsequently in the UDHR.  Latin American representatives, for example, were responsible for language about duties finding a place in the final version of the UDHR, reflecting their more communitarian and less individualistic vision of freedom in modern society, and they managed to insert an article into the UDHR about the right to justice.

Sikkink counters a related argument that Moyn and others have advanced that the human rights movement lay largely dormant after the UDHR’s adoption until the administration of American President Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s.  Rather, the movement gathered force in the 1950s through the mid-1970s, Sikkink contends, as jurists and diplomats, especially but not exclusively from the Global South, fought to “ensure the creation of institutions with the power necessary to enforce human rights” (p.97).  During these decades of Cold War confrontation, the United States was largely on the sidelines, prioritizing instead its support for anti-communist regimes, many with dubious human rights records.

The decolonization movements of the 1950s and early 1960s linked independence and notions of national self-determination to democracy and human rights.  The anti-apartheid campaign in South Africa, in Sikkink’s view the most important and sustained human rights struggle of the Cold War period, explicitly embraced the notions of human rights embodied in the UDHR.  In 1965, Asian and African countries, led by India, spearheaded passage of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD).

Work also continued during the 1950s and 1960s on the two most consequential follow-up instruments to the UDHR, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), drafted over the course of 15 years and opened for ratification in 1966.  The Carter administration helped “activate and eventually consolidate” (p.28) these institutional developments, Sinkkink writes with emphasis, but they had been underway for the previous thirty years (why human rights became a priority of the Carter administration is the subject of Barbara Keys’ Reclaiming American Virtue, reviewed here in 2015).

In measuring effectiveness and what constitutes human rights progress, Sikkiink explains that the difference between empirical comparisons and comparisons to an ideal might be thought of as two different types of lenses or yardsticks: a comparison to the ideal “involves contrasting what has actually happened with what should happen in an ideal world, whereas empirical comparison contrasts what is actually happening to what has happened in the same country in the past or to what is happening in other countries at the same time” (p.3).

As a skilled social scientist, Sikkink expects human rights critics to be clear about their methods.  When comparing cases to the ideal, the ideal should be explicit, not implicit. “This allows others to evaluate the arguments and the quality of the evidence and judge the work, “ she writes.  Too many critics “take for themselves the luxury of criticisms without making their own suppositions sufficiently clear” (p.48).  Applying empirical data to a cross section of key human rights issues across the globe – the status of women, the prevalence of torture and the frequency of the death penalty among them — Sikkink makes the case that there is real progress in the world, after all.  By “looking more carefully at the history of human rights and at current trends we can find hope for progress in spite of struggles and backlash,” (p.247), she concludes.

Evaluating the effectiveness of the human rights movement also needs to consider what Sikkink terms the “information paradox”: the more intense the focus on human rights, the more violations are likely to come to light, especially as reporting improves.  That doesn’t necessarily mean the number of violations are increasing.  Inadvertently, “as the reports accumulate and are taken up by the media, they may also convince people that human rights movements are not making any progress at curbing such violations”  (p.14).

As in much of social science, measuring effectiveness in human rights involves identifying correlations.  On the positive side, democracy and human rights are “intimately related,” Sikkink writes, and, “so far in human history, it is hard to have one without the other.  That does not mean that democracy inevitably leads to human rights; it just means that democracy is a necessary, but not at all sufficient, condition for human rights progress” (p.131-32).   Although there is general agreement among scholars and specialists that democratic political institutions reduce repressive behavior, “research indicates that democratic institutions mainly contribute to decreased repression only after a certain high democracy threshold is reached” (p.193).

On the negative side, there are “risk factors” that signal the potential for increased human rights violations, among them war, particularly civil war; the presence of insurgent groups and separatist movements; ideologies that exclude and dehumanize certain people or groups; and poverty.  Sikkink does not include economic inequality among the risk factors, and treads lightly around the topical question whether there is a correlation between rising economic inequality and the human rights movement.

Such inequality is usually attributed to “neo-liberalism,” a shorthand reference to government policies, often associated with the Thatcher and Reagan years, favoring less-regulated markets, open international trade, and privatization of some former state functions, frequently accompanied by reductions in social safety net benefits.  Some commentators contend that the relationship between human rights and neo-liberalism is one of “complicity,” that human rights policies somehow make possible neo-liberal policies, while Moyn argues that the human rights movement has been “powerless against inequality” (p.38).

Sikkink respondsthat human rights policies can reduce economic inequalities.   The human rights movement has made significant inroads in reducing gender inequalities, for example, with an impact on overall economic inequality.  But more fundamentally, while mitigating economic inequalities is a laudable goal — both within and among nation-states – it is best achieved by policies like more progressive taxation, closing tax havens, preventing money laundering and cracking down on corruption.  Human rights movements, she contends, “don’t have to be the only tools for fighting inequality” (p.239).

 * *

Sikkink does not pretend that the modern human rights movement is flawless.  But her spirited defense of an imperfect movement should be reassuring, offering evidence-based reasons not only to reject despair but even to hope that the movement in the 21st century can continue, as it has done in the past, to deliver empirically measurable progress.

Thomas H. Peebles

Paris, France

May 31, 2021

 

 

3 Comments

Filed under History, Rule of Law, World History

Moralizing Credibly to the World

Keys

Barbara Keys, Reclaiming American Virtue:
The Human Rights Revolution of the 1970s 

     During the 1970s, political liberalism in the United States embraced the notion of international human rights as a priority consideration in shaping American foreign policy. The liberal argument that gained traction during the latter portion of the decade was that the United States should not support or provide assistance to governments that engaged in practices violating international human rights norms, particularly torture and repression of dissent. But this liberal argument could gain its traction only after the end in early 1973 of America’s role as a belligerent in the Vietnam War.  Such is the premise which Barbara Keys, a Harvard-educated Senior Lecturer in American and International History at the University of Melbourne, Australia, expounds in her thoroughly researched and solidly written work, Reclaiming American Virtue: The Human Rights Revolution of the 1970s.

    Human rights as a “liberal foreign policy paradigm” was an “intellectual impossibility” while America was mired in Vietnam, Keys contends, and therefore “unthinkable in the circumstances of the war” (p.53).  As long as the war continued, a “profound fatigue with and abhorrence of the very idea of intervention precluded the development of any new, systematic effort to inject American power or values abroad . . . Only once the war was over would American liberals feel they could credibly moralize to the world” (p. 53-54).  What Keys describes as the “human rights revolution” of the 1970s in the United States was for American liberals an “emotional response to the trauma of the Vietnam War” (p.8) – or, as Keys’ title indicates, a means to reclaim American virtue.

* * *

     The term “human rights” came into vogue only after World War II, with the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or UDHR, which established norms defining the basic rights that all humans were entitled to demand from their governments. Arising out of the destruction and devastation of World War II, the UDHR was one of the first international instruments to refer to human rights in general, rather than to the rights of specific groups. But the UDHR was mostly aspirational, a document “intended to be a beacon, not a guide to actual behavior” (p.22). It contained no enforcement mechanisms and numerous clauses indicated that it did not seek to infringe upon state sovereignty.

     Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the term “human rights” was largely dormant in the United States, except as associated with the ineffectual UDHR, and played little discernible role in American foreign policy. These were also the decades when the term “civil rights” became part of the national vocabulary. Although civil rights might be thought of as the specific name for the movement for human rights for African-Americans, the two terms have different lineages. The notion of human rights Keys emphasizes, seeks “legitimacy and solutions in international law resting above the authority of the nation-state,” whereas the civil rights movement in the United States above all sought “American remedies to American injustice” (p.33-34).

      When American involvement in the war in Vietnam ended in 1973, “emotions spilled into new areas, casting old questions in fresh light and creating novel possibilities for action. Slowly, as a process of accumulation rather than epiphany, human rights became one of those possibilities” (p.127-28). The end of combat activities in Vietnam “opened the way for members of Congress to vent long-brewing anger at the conduct and content of U.S. foreign policy” (p.133-34). A loose group of Congressmen dubbed the “new internationalists” pursued support for human rights abroad as part of an American foreign policy orientation that also prioritized economic cooperation, cultural exchanges and support for democracy, with less emphasis upon military assistance.

     Among the new internationalists, a now-obscure Democratic Congressman from Minnesota, Donald Fraser, more than any other national official, was “responsible for creating a framework that linked disparate global problems under the heading of human rights” (p.76). In the House of Representatives, Fraser led hearings in late 1973 that are “often regarded as the moment when a movement for international human rights in the United States began to take off,” generating a “blueprint for much of the congressional human rights efforts of the next few years” (p.141). The blueprint included several changes to the administration of American foreign aid that made it more difficult for the United States to provide assistance to foreign governments that engaged in human rights abuses, especially torture and detention of political prisoners. Section 32 of the 1973 Foreign Assistance Act, which came to be known as the “Fraser Amendment,” provided for “reductions (or, more often, the threat of reductions) in security aid for gross violations such as torture, coupled with the requirement that the State Department issue reports critiquing foreign countries’ human rights records” (p.165).

     In the aftermath of the Fraser Amendment, Congress used country-specific public hearings to “shape public opinion and signal concern about human rights abuses”(p.176). It focused on “sensational abuses, torture above all,” and made cuts in aid to “friendly but strategically expendable governments” (p.176). The results were “inevitably ad hoc and inconsistent, with some countries and some abuses drawing attention and sanctions while others were largely ignored” (p.176). Liberals hoped that cutting aid would stimulate reforms and reduce repression but, as Fraser and others admitted, they had “little evidence that targeting aid would work as planned” (p.160). Tangible effects were not, however, the measure of success. The crucial task was to “restore a commitment to American values by dissociating from regimes that tortured and murdered political opponents” (p.160) – and thereby reclaim American virtue.

     In Paraguay, for example, a country with “little significance to the United States,” human rights abuses were met with a “solid front: diplomatic isolation, total cutoffs in aid, and blocked loans in international forums” (p.257). Between 1974 and 1976, liberals also pushed through aid measures that reduced or cut off aid to South Korea, Chile, and Uruguay. Allies in these years included conservatives who supported dissidents in the Soviet Union, mostly Jewish, who wished to emigrate, most frequently to Israel.

     The spokesman for this group was another Democrat, albeit one considered highly conservative, Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson from the State of Washington. Joining his cause were several intellectuals who were later labeled “neo-conservatives,” including Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Irving Kristol and Daniel Moynihan. With Senator Jackson leading the charge in Congress, “unrepentant Cold Warriors took the rhetoric of human rights newly popularized internationally by Soviet dissidents and fashioned a straightforwardly anticommunist policy around the universalist language [of the UDHR]. It was a stunning shift in the rhetoric of conservative anticommunism, which in the 1950s and 1960s had been overtly hostile to the UN and . . . had seen UN human rights instruments as a dangerous threat to American values” (p.104).

      But this neo-conservative embrace of human rights was driven by a fervent rejection of the shame and guilt that had characterized the anti-Vietnam War movement and the campaign rhetoric of 1972 presidential candidate George McGovern. For the conservative proponents of Soviet Jewry, the Vietnam War “required no apology;” it had been not immoral but rather an “admirable expression of the nation’s moral principles, as well as a strategic necessity, and consonant with America’s consistently beneficent role in the world” (p.116).  Jackson and his cohorts believed that the “self-doubt provoked by the Vietnam War threatened to weaken America’s resolve in what remained a life-or-death struggle against communism” (p.104).

     The cause of human rights in the Soviet Union pulled liberals in two directions. While sympathetic to Jews who wished to emigrate, they also “strongly supported improved U.S.-Soviet ties, reduced tensions, and the broad aims of détente” which the Nixon and Ford administrations were pursuing. Their aims therefore “diverged from those of hardliners like Jackson who sought to derail détente” (p.125). The foil to this odd liberal-conservative alliance was Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State to Presidents Nixon and Ford.

      Kissinger expounded a realpolitik approach to foreign policy, which gave priority to America’s geo-political interests and allowed little room for judgments about a country’s internal human rights record. Kissinger argued that it was dangerous to “make the domestic policy of countries around the world a direct objective of American foreign policy” (p.133) at a time when the administration was seeking to reduce tensions with the Soviet Union and thereby reduce the risk of nuclear war. Although Kissinger believed that human rights initiatives would hurt relations with America’s allies, what most spurred his opposition was resentment at what he considered congressional intrusions into executive branch prerogatives to shape the nation’s foreign policy.

     For 1970s liberals, Kissinger was the personification of all that was wrong with the way American foreign policy was conducted. But neither did he have many fans among the neo-conservatives pushing the Soviet Union on Jewish emigration. They regarded détente with the Soviet Union, pursued by both the Nixon and Ford administrations, as wrong headed and dangerous. Kissinger’s adamant defense of realpolitik and executive prerogatives backfired, playing a “pivotal role in moving human rights from the sidelines to the center of American diplomacy,” Keys argues.  Ironically, Kissinger would be a serious contender for designation as the person “most responsible for advancing the cause of international human rights in the mid-1970s” (p.153), she writes.

      Jimmy Carter, who won the presidency in the 1976 election, is often thought of as the catalyst for bringing human rights into the mainstream of American foreign policy. As a presidential candidate, however, Carter had been skeptical about elevating human rights to a foreign policy priority position. He did not share the deep emotional concern of Jackson and his cohorts for Soviet Jews, “nor was it his instinct to identify with political prisoners around the world” (p.236). His embrace of human rights was “both late and serendipitous” (p.215). But Carter “eventually came around to the issue because it resonated with his theme of restoring morality and, more pragmatically, because it would enhance his standing among Jewish voters” (p.236).

     Discovering what human rights promotion meant in practice was for the Carter administration “far more complicated than anyone had anticipated. The difficulties the administration encountered in formulating a human rights agenda attest both to a lack of specific planning and the sheer novelty of a human rights based foreign policy. There were no precedents to draw on, no prior models from which to borrow,” leaving the impression of “incoherence and muddle” (p.250). Given inflation, gas lines and above all the 444-day hostage crisis in Iran, which the Carter administration was unable to resolve, Carter’s four-year term was frequently viewed as a failure.

     Ronald Reagan, who defeated Carter in the 1980 presidential election, explicitly disavowed human rights as a priority consideration in the foreign policy of his administration. But, thanks especially to a credible human rights lobby that had taken shape during the Carter administration, Reagan could not ignore human rights entirely. In particular, Keys emphasizes how the American branch of Amnesty International, AI USA, evolved during the Carter administration into an organization with serious clout on Capitol Hill and with the State Department.

      AI USA focused initially on political prisoners, lobbying for aid cuts to regimes that tortured and jailed opponents in large numbers, a narrow focus “ideally suited to the Zeitgeist of the seventies” (p.181), Keys argues. Rather than seeking to effectuate wholesale structural changes within selected governments, AI USA aimed more modestly at making specific and targeted changes to practices and individual behavior within those governments. Amnesty “resolutely portrayed itself as nonpartisan – indeed as beyond politics” (p.192). But despite its apolitical mantra, its “most prominent activities and the majority of its leaders and grassroots members were on the left of the political spectrum” (p.192). Charitable tax law enjoined the organization from directly lobbying the government and AI rules prohibited it from taking a position on foreign aid. The office nonetheless worked closely with State Department officials and sympathetic members of Congress, providing information, requesting action, and prodding them to ask questions.

      Keys concludes that in light of the terrorists attacks of September 11, 2001, and the United States’ protracted military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, “Americans seem to be losing interest in the idea [of human rights] as a guide to U.S. foreign policy” (p.277). While American public sentiment could well be turning inward, repudiation of human rights in the formulation of American foreign policy would be far more difficult today than in the Reagan administration. Several other human rights organizations have cropped up beside AI USA, such as Human Rights Watch and Freedom House, to convey human rights concerns to Washington policy makers and the public. The clout of these organizations alone would make a repudiation of human rights unlikely. Moreover, the State Department is required to address human rights in a multitude of contexts.

      The Department’s annual country-by-country human rights report, coordinated by a vast bureaucracy within the State Department, the Bureau of Democracy, Rights, and Labor, details individual countries’ human rights records in a strikingly broad array of areas. The report is read closely and taken seriously around the world.  Further, the United States’ anti-human trafficking legislation requires the State Department to produce another report, coordinated by another bureaucracy within the Department, which sets forth individual countries’ progress in curtailing human trafficking. The legislation provides for sanctions for those countries deemed to be making insufficient progress. During my career working in U.S. Embassies, I was frequently involved in the preparation of these reports.

       I was even more involved in what is termed “Leahy Vetting,” a process established by an amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 sponsored by Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy. Leahy Vetting mandates a formal State Department determination that any specific instance of U.S. assistance to overseas law enforcement and security units will  not include officers or units that had engaged in serious human rights abuses. Although realpolitik of the Kissinger variety has hardly disappeared from the United States’ foreign policy formulation process, today it competes with human rights and a wide range of other institutionalized considerations in determining that policy.

* * *

     As a means of “coming to terms with the Vietnam War” and a “way to heal the country” (p.3), the human rights revolution of the 1970s which Keys depicts represents still another legacy of the traumatic Vietnam conflict.  But Keys also demonstrates that human rights rose to its prominent position as a result of diverse pressures and motivations, which she methodically ties together.  Writing  in straightforward if not quite riveting prose, Keys  casts incisive light on an often overlooked aspect of modern American liberalism, now thoroughly mainstream; and on how and why the human rights records of other governments came to play a prominent role in defining America’s relationship with the rest of the world.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
November 3, 2015

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Filed under American Politics, Politics, United States History, World History

Tantalizing Look

Garry Wills, Outside Looking In:

Adventures of an Observer

Outside-Looking-in-Wills-Garry

       Garry Wills has always been a fascinating yet little known figure for me.  His writing is breathtakingly wide-ranging, from themes on antiquity and the Bible to modern American politics and presidents.  I have enjoyed some but not all of his writing — much is quite abstract and way over my head.  I knew that Wills was a strong Catholic whose Catholicism has influenced his world view and his writings.  I also knew that he had an early stint at William F. Buckley’s National Review, America’s foremost conservative publication, yet today is closely associated with the liberal and progressive point of view.  These factors make Wills a figure I was eager to learn more about.

       “Outside Looking In: Adventures of an Observer” fulfills that learning function only partially, leaving much of the Garry Wills story tantalizingly untold.  Wills describes himself as both “incurably Catholic” (p.6) and also highly conventional,  “incurably . . . square — middle class, never bohemian or avant-garde” (p.6).  As someone “so colorless,” Wills indicates, “I am not interesting in myself, but I have been able to meet many interesting people and observe fascinating events, partly by being unobtrusive” (p.7).   Wills’ book, a series of short vignettes about his experiences and the people he has met, seeks to share what he has been able to observe, looking in from the outside.

       Wills’ introduction, entitled “A Bookworm’s Confession,” is about as close as he comes to autobiography.  Here, Wills describes his early upbringing, which centered, to his father’s chagrin, around books and his affinity for reading.  When he was in grade school, his father promised him money if he could go a week without reading.  Wills accepted his father’s offer, then “used the money to buy a new book” (p.3).  As a teenager, Wills was sneaking away to read books in the way many of his age were sneaking away to smoke cigarettes.  In boarding school, he read in the john at night, the “only place where lights were kept on” (p.3).  While working in a clothing store, he read Shakespeare in the warehouse during his breaks.

       Wills’ first and second substantive chapters are about the Civil Rights campaigns in the early 1960s and the death of Martin Luther King.  There is a chapter on Studs Turkel, one of Wills’ favorites; another on Wills’ mercurial father, Jack.  Wills also enjoys films and there is a chapter entitled simply “Movies.”  Wills’ story about how he met his wife Natalie is practically the stuff of a detective novel.  Wills explains with much gusto how he tracked down an erudite flight attendant he had met by chance on a plane trip.  He is still married to this woman some 50 years later and, as he tells it, she is not only his spouse but also his intellectual alter ego.

       Wills traveled with Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign, and came close enough to see Nixon’s “omnidirectional mistrust” which would later “blossom into the break-ins and spying that brought Nixon down” (p.106).  Wills also traveled with the Carter campaign in 1976.  He was impressed with the way the deeply religious candidate kept his religion out of his campaign.  “So far from injecting religion into politics, Carter had the historical Baptist belief in a separation of church and state” (p.111-12).  He further considers Carter to have had the “most successful ex-presidency of all time” (p.113-114), becoming a “voice of conscience in all nations, not just in ours” (p.114).

       When Wills interviewed President George H.W. Bush, the subject naturally turned to books.  Bush indicated that he had been particularly impressed with Catcher in the Rye while a student at Phillips Exeter Academy.  Wills notes in his book – but presumably not to the President – that Catcher in the Rye was first published in 1951, whereas Bush had graduated from Exeter in 1942.  “He was so devoid of personal reading memories,” Wills writes, that he “must have remembered his sons’ talk of the novel when they were in prep school” (p.142).

       Wills met Bill Clinton when the man from Hope was first running for president and Wills was working on an analysis of Saint Augustine’s Confessions.  Wills interviewed Clinton and asked the candidate what book had made the greatest impression on him.  Aware of Wills’ Saint Augustine project, Clinton predictably came up with a title designed to curry Wills’ favor, Marcus Aurelius’ Mediations.  After his election, a cheap paperback of the Mediations came out with a banner indicating it was the newly elected President’s favorite book.  Wills saw immediately the irony in Clinton’s choice of an ascetical treatise that severely “condemns any yielding to sexual indulgence” (p.120).

       William Buckley is the subject of Wills’ penultimate chapter.  But, in a broader sense, Buckley is a dominating presence throughout this book.   Wills was on a flight to attend a Buckley party when he met his wife, for example.  Buckley was a formative mentor for Wills, a warm but mischievous fellow, capable of much kindness.  Wills speculates that Buckley was drawn to him because of his Catholicism – Buckley too was “incurably Catholic” (p.153).  Early in his National Review stint, Wills became Buckley’s informal advisor on Catholic matters.

       In 1957, Buckley published a much-maligned editorial, “Why the South Must Prevail,” in which he defended segregation because whites were the “advanced race” and the “claims of civilization superseded those of universal suffrage” (p.157).  Wills argued vehemently with Buckley on these positions and Buckley’s biographer credits Wills with convincing Buckley to moderate his views and distance himself and the National Review from Southern segregationists.  But, Wills argues, Buckley also put distance between his brand of conservatism and the “anti-Semitism of the Liberty Lobby, the fanaticism of the John Birch Society, the glorification of selfishness by Ayn Rand [and] . . . the paranoia and conspiratorialism of the neocons” (p.158-59).  In each of these cases, “some right-wingers tried to cut off donations to The National Review, but Bill stood his ground” (p.159).  In Wills’ view, one of Buckley’s most significant contributions to American conservatism was to elevate the discourse in American politics, “making civil debate possible between responsible liberals and conservatives” (p.159).

       Wills and Buckley were estranged for more than 30 years, driven apart by the “convulsions of the sixties and their aftermath” (p.164).  Wills became a vehement critic of the Vietnam War, whereas Buckley maintained his hard-line support for the American war effort.  The final break between the two men came when Buckley refused to publish an essay in the National Review in which Wills argued that there was “no conservative rationale for our ruinous engagement in Vietnam.”  As a consequence, over the next 30 years, “communication between us was at first minimal, and then non-existent “ (p.164).  For a while, the Review ran a “Wills Watch” documenting Wills’ liberal heresies.  There was some reconnection and reconciliation between the two men in the years immediately preceding Buckley’s death in 2008, although Wills does not recount any meeting.

       While the episodes in this book provide some insight into one of America’s most versatile and formidable contemporary thinkers, readers like me who want to see up close the inner Wills will find the book only partially satisfying.  We remain thoroughly unconvinced by his self-description as “uninteresting” and can only hope that at some subsequent time he will open a little wider the window into his prodigious mind.

Thomas H. Peebles

Rockville, Maryland

December 16, 2012

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