American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

December 1996

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Public Opinion on Human Rights in
American Foreign Policy

by Ole R. Holsti

Second installment

(Article continued from American Diplomacy, Vol. I, No. 1.)

(Note: We repeat here the hypotheses advanced by the author
in the first installment -- Ed.)
Hypothesis 1

  1. The end of the Cold War has triggered a decline of interest in the state of human rights abroad as a vital concern for American foreign policy.

  2. The end of the Cold War has increased American willingness to apply human rights criteria in the conduct of U. S. foreign relations.

Hypothesis 2

  1. Compared to leaders, the general public is likely to assign a higher priority to human rights goals in the conduct of American foreign affairs.

  2. Because they are more knowledgeable about the changing nature of international affairs in an age of interdependence, leaders are more likely than members of the general public to hold internationalist views and to understand that U. S. national interests usually parallel rather than work at cross purposes with the promotion and protection of human rights abroad.
Hypothesis 3

  1. Positions of support for or opposition to human rights focus in American foreign policy are specifically and narrowly grounded in pragmatic assessments of the feasibility and desirability of permitting national interests -- and the strategies used to pursue such interests -- to be defined and constrained by the human rights policies, practices, and preferences of other nations.

  2. Attitudes toward the priority that should be accorded human rights in the conduct of foreign affairs are likely to be embedded within a broader cluster of policy preferences -- an ideology -- that includes attitudes on domestic human rights issues.)


THE FIRST PAIR OF HYPOTHESES introduced [in the first installment] provides divergent assessments about how the end of the Cold War may have affected attitudes toward human rights, whereas the second pair focuses on possible differences between the attitudes of leaders and the general public. As noted earlier, few surveys have repeated identical questions about human rights, making it difficult to undertake extensive trend analyses with confidence. The two exceptions are the CCFR and FPLP surveys, both of which have included some relevant questions asking respondents to indicate how much importance should be attached to a series of possible foreign policy goals. Several of these items were also included in a 1993 Times-Mirror survey of both leaders and the general public.

Beginning in 1978, those taking part in the CCFR and FPLP surveys were asked to rate "promoting and defending human rights in other countries" as a foreign policy goal, with response options ranging from "very important" to "not important at all." The results for both leaders and the general public, summarized in Table 1, yield several conclusions:

First, with one exception, in none of the surveys did human rights abroad emerge as a top priority goal for either leaders or the general public. The high point occurred in 1990, just a year after the Berlin Wall had come down, when 58 percent of the general public rated human rights abroad as a "very important" goal, but even then it ranked only sixth, placing it behind such economic and security goals as protecting the jobs of American workers, protecting the interests of American business abroad, securing adequate supplies of energy, defending our allies' security, and preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.

Second, even though human rights abroad never ranked among the top priorities during the 1970s and 1980s, the period since the end of the Cold War has nevertheless witnessed a somewhat reduced enthusiasm for this foreign policy goal. The evidence in Table 1 thus appears to provide greater support for hypothesis 1a than for hypothesis 1b.1

Finally, differences between leaders and the general public are rather muted, with the single exception of the responses to the 1990 CCFR survey.2 Consequently, the evidence does not provide a clear verdict in favor of either hypothesis 2a or 2b.

A SECOND HUMAN RIGHTS-RELATED QUESTION asked respondents to rate the importance of "helping to bring a democratic form of government to other nations." It should be noted, of course, that there is a far from perfect correlation between democracy and respect for human rights. A government may be voted into office in "fair" elections on a platform of suppressing some minority; for a century after the American Civil War, for example, countless southern Democrats won office by promising to maintain segregation and otherwise preventing black Americans from enjoying the status of first class citizens. Nevertheless, the human rights records of democracies are, on balance, far better than those of most authoritarian regimes. It is thus likely that one of the reasons respondents might attach importance to promoting democracy abroad is precisely because of a belief that doing so might improve the overall state of human rights.

Promoting the spread of a democratic form of government to other nations has not ranked as a high foreign policy priority, at least during the past two decades. Indeed, more often than not it has been the foreign goal that was assigned the fewest "very important" ratings by both leaders and the general public responding to the surveys summarized in Table 2.3 Although some observers have criticized American diplomacy for misguided zeal in attempting to propagate the country's values and institutions abroad, there is little evidence of public enthusiasm for such undertakings in the post-Vietnam era. Nor do the data in Table 2 indicate that the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union have kindled -- or rekindled, as the case may be -- any burning desires to promote the spread of democracy, even though the risks of igniting a superpower confrontation with Moscow by doing so have virtually vanished. Starting from a very low baseline, there has been a modest increase in leaders who assign a "very important" rating to the goal of promoting democracy abroad, whereas the opinions of the general public have remained stable during the past two decades. Thus, the evidence would not appear to provide compelling support for either hypothesis 1a or 1b.

Finally, compared to leaders, the general public has been somewhat more inclined to support the promotion of democracy abroad, but the differences between the two groups, most pronounced during the 1970s, have virtually disappeared. It might be noted in conclusion that the figures in the right hand column of Table 2 offer further evidence exonerating the public against the charge that its opinions on foreign affairs are afflicted by a high degree of volatility.

ALTHOUGH THE UNITED STATES has been involved in a broad range of economic assistance programs since the end of World War II, American officials have usually resisted any efforts to include economic-social "needs" as an integral part of human "rights," preferring to confine the latter term to civil-political rights. But as noted earlier, this analysis adopts a broader view of human rights wherein appraisals of "helping to improve the standard of living in less developed countries" as a foreign policy goal are germane to the discussion.

Assessments of that goal by leaders and the general public are summarized in Table 3. The data reveal a rather consistent erosion of support for attempting to improve the standard of living in poor countries. The evidence from the CCFR surveys shows that support for this goal among leaders peaked in 1978 and has declined steadily since then, whereas assessments among the general public remained quite stable through 1990. The sharp decline among both groups in 1994, the first CCFR survey following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, provides support for hypothesis 1a and runs counter to hypothesis 1b.

The data in Table 3 also indicate that, compared to the general public, leaders have consistently accorded more "very important" ratings to the goal of improving living standards in the LDCs, thus providing some support for hypothesis 2b. But those differences, which were quite pronounced through the mid-1980s, have diminished more recently as respondents in both groups have expressed reduced interest in this goal. These results are consistent with other survey data that have shown a steady decline in public support for international economic assistance programs. But the public has spoken with a clear voice on one aspect of foreign aid by very strong majorities it approves linking international assistance to the recipient's performance on human rights, and it is critical of aid to countries with poor human rights records.4

A SECOND QUESTION that bears on the economic aspects of human rights asked respondents to rate the importance of "combatting world hunger" as a foreign policy goal. Their appraisals, summarized in Table 4, reveal considerably greater support for coping with hunger than for the more general goal of raising the standard of living in the Third World. Two possible reasons come to mind. First, hunger represents a deprivation of the most basic human need. A second possible reason is that the means for dealing with hunger, at least in the short run, are more obvious and readily available, especially for a country such as the United States that consistently produces massive agricultural surpluses. In contrast, raising the standard of living in poor countries may appear to be an open-ended goal without a clearly defined end for which there are fewer ready and uncontroversial solutions.

Although there has been some erosion of support for coping with hunger as a foreign policy goal since the mid-1970s, the data in Table 4 do not provide significant support for either hypothesis 1a or hypothesis 1b on the impact of the end of the Cold War. Nor does the evidence yield a clear-cut verdict with respect to hypotheses 2a and 2b. With the single exception of the 1994 CCFR survey, the differences between leaders and the general public have not been of a striking magnitude. Through the early 1980s, leaders were somewhat more inclined to rate the goal of combatting hunger as "very important," but since then the direction of the gap between the two groups has been reversed. Once again, responses of the general public have been marked by stability rather than volatility. The views of opinion leaders taking part in the FPLP surveys have also remained quite stable.

EVIDENCE ABOUT A FIFTH FOREIGN POLICY GOAL with a human rights dimension -- "protecting the global environment" -- is even sketchier than for the other four issues because the question did not appear in the CCFR surveys until 1990. We thus lack a Cold War era baseline against which to assess the more recent responses of the general public. There might be no special reason to suspect that the end of the Cold War would have a direct impact on attitudes toward environmental protection, but the collapse of communist governments in Eastern Europe and the disintegration of the USSR did result in much fuller information about massive environmental depredations in many of those countries.

The limited evidence summarized in Table 5 provides little basis on which to assess the relative merits of the competing hypotheses on the impact of the end of the Cold War. Attitudes among the general public have remained quite stable, with more than half of the respondents consistently rating environmental protection as "very important." In contrast, the views of leaders have been more variable, with increasing interest among those taking part in the FPLP surveys, and declining "very important" ratings among the leaders surveyed by the CCFR. These results do not give rise to any clear verdict about the validity of hypotheses 2a or 2b.

THE THIRD PAIR OF HYPOTHESES presented above posited quite different answers to the question of whether attitudes toward incorporating human rights concerns into foreign relations are narrowly circumscribed or, alternatively, whether such views are embedded within broader political ideologies. Table 6 summarizes the relationship between leadership attitudes toward "promoting and defending human rights abroad" and the other four human rights goals questions. The correlations are consistently very high, averaging .62 and falling below .50 only once. These figures indicate strong links between attitudes toward various aspects of human rights abroad. Had the correlations been very weak or negative, they would have provided strong evidence against the hypothesis [3b] that attitudes toward human rights are part of a broader belief system, but by themselves they are not sufficient to sustain that hypothesis.

In order to assess the relative merits of hypotheses 3a and 3b, the analysis will proceed in three stages:

  • The first will examine the relationship between appraisals of the human rights "goal" question and respondents' political party and ideology, as well as two other attributes of opinion leaders -- foreign policy orientations and domestic policy orientations.
  • A second step will examine the relationship between these respondent attributes and assessments of American foreign policy issues and decisions with significant human rights implications.
  • The final step will analyze the correlation between attributes of leaders and their answers to questions about several domestic human rights issues.
Assessments by both leaders and the general public of "promoting and defending human rights in other countries" are drawn from the Chicago Council and Times-Mirror surveys; the FPLP surveys provide additional evidence about the human rights views of opinion leaders.

Whereas Table 1 provided aggregate summaries of responses to the human rights goal questioning several studies, Table 7 reports assessments of that goal according to the party affiliation and ideological self-description by both leaders and members of the general public who took part in the CCFR and Times-Mirror surveys. Table 8 classifies opinion leaders who responded to the FPLP surveys according to four attributes: political party, ideology, foreign policy orientation, and domestic policy orientation.

The results summarized in Table 7 yield several conclusions:
  • First, Democrats have generally accorded higher importance to the goal of defending and promoting human rights abroad, although partisan differences among the general public were quite small during the peak years of support for human rights -- 1986 and 1990. In the latter survey, the partisan gap was only four percent as a majority of Republicans, Democrats and independents assigned the highest rating to that goal.

  • Second, compared to the general public, partisan gaps have consistently been much wider among leaders. Differences between Republicans and Democrats reached a peak of 37 percent in 1994 when only nine percent of the GOP leaders rated human rights abroad as a "very important" foreign policy goal.
Further evidence of partisan differences among leaders emerges from the data in Table 8. Compared to Republicans, more Democrats gave the goal of human rights abroad the top rating in each of the four FPLP surveys. Although there has been a very modest increase in support for human rights among members of both major political parties, as well as independents, the gap between Democrats and Republicans has been consistently quite high, ranging between 21 and 38 percent.

When respondents are classified according to ideology, the range of opinions about human rights as a foreign policy goal has generally been even wider than partisan differences, and there is little evidence that the gaps have been narrowing with the end of the Cold War. Both the CCFR and Times-Mirror surveys found that liberals have consistently given a higher priority to human rights goals (Table 7). As was true of partisan gaps, the ideological differences are more pronounced among leader than the general public. Evidence of wide gaps in assessments of the human rights goal among leaders also emerges from the FPLP surveys (Table 8). In each of these surveys support for human rights increases steadily as one moves from the more conservative to the more liberal end of the scale. Whereas the assessments by self-described conservative leaders have remained rather stable during the 1980-1992 period, support for human rights as a foreign policy goal has increased among moderates and liberals.

The "foreign policy orientation" categories are constructed from responses to seven questions that deal with various aspects of "militant internationalism" (MI) and seven others that focus on "cooperative internationalism" (CI). Respondents who support MI but oppose CI are hard-liners ; the other three groups are isolationists (oppose both MI and CI), internationalists (support both MI and CI), and accommodationists (oppose MI, support CI).5 The data in Table 8 reveal sharp and consistent differences among opinion leaders in the four groups in their appraisals of human rights as a foreign policy goal:
  • Hard-liners and isolationists have consistently been the least inclined to accord importance to human rights, although probably for different reasons; whereas the former generally take a realpolitik stance that places little premium on human rights, the latter are wary of goals that may imply widespread American commitments abroad.

  • In contrast, respondents in the two groups that support cooperative internationalism -- the internationalists and accommodationists -- have consistently assigned greater importance to human rights as a foreign policy goal.

  • The gaps between the hard-liners and accommodationists are especially wide, ranging between 35 and 42 percent.

These results are consistent with Forsythe's finding that in congressional voting, "How one votes on a general series of foreign and military issues is thus an excellent predictor of how one will vote on more specific human rights issues." (Forsythe 1988:41).

In the final part of Table 8 respondents are classified into four domestic policy orientation groups according to their answers to six questions on economic issues and to six others on social-value issues. These questions were first included in the 1984 survey and, thus, there are no data under the 1980 column of Table 8. According to this classification scheme, conservatives are leaders who express conservative policy preferences on both economic and social-value questions; the other three groups are libertarians (economic conservatives, social-value liberals), populists (economic liberals, social-value conservatives), and liberals (liberals on both sets of issues).6 The evidence reveals strong and consistent differences on human rights among respondents in the four groups. Not surprisingly, the widest gaps are between the conservatives and liberals, with the libertarians and populists in the middle.7

TO THIS POINT, the analysis has focused on a set of questions asking respondents to assess foreign policy goals. Although these questions have the virtue of having been asked over span of more than two decades with precisely the same wording, they have the disadvantage of being rather abstract and removed from the specific context of actual decisions and policies. Stated differently, the "goals" questions may provide evidence about what respondents believe to be desirable , but they tell us little about what they regard as feasible in given circumstances, or about how they may assess tradeoffs between goals.

Two of the most difficult and controversial issues touching upon the tradeoffs between human rights and other foreign policy goals have involved the former Soviet Union and China:

  • To what extent should the United States press for better treatment of Jews and other minorities in the USSR if doing so might endanger negotiations on arms control and other strategic issues?

  • Should the United States insist upon improvement of China's human rights record as a condition for better relations, including normalized trade, with Beijing?

Some variant of the former question was posed at least fourteen times by several survey organizations during the decade and a half prior to disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. Although the wording of questions varied quite substantially, making it hazardous to attempt any direct comparisons among them, one clear conclusion emerges from the data: In every case but one, the public assigned a higher priority to arms control than to human rights goals. The exception occurred during the opening months of the Carter administration when 55 percent of the public agreed that President Carter should "continue to complain to the Russians about the suppression of human rights even if it slows down détente and the chances for an arms agreement."8 A 1985 Gallup poll yielded a more typical result when 62 percent of the respondents supported the view that "arms control is so important we should negotiate in that area regardless of progress on human rights and regional conflicts," whereas only 29 percent wanted to make agreement on an arms control treaty dependent on progress in resolving the other issues.9

The public has been much more ambivalent about the appropriate policy when faced with a tradeoff between improving relations and expanding trade with China versus pressing the Beijing regime for an improvement in its human rights record. Since the Tiananmen Square massacre of dissidents in 1989, various forms of the question have been posed at least fifteen times, with results that fail to yield a clear pattern of preferences. For example, between January 1990 and October 1991, four CBS News/New York Times surveys asked "when the United States deals with China, which do you think is more important: to criticize the way China suppresses human rights, or to avoid criticism in order to maintain good relations with China?" In none of these surveys did either option garner support from a majority of the respondents; the "good relations" policy barely prevailed in the first two surveys by 46-42 percent and 44-42 percent, whereas the "human rights" position was favored by margins of 48-37 percent and 44-40 percent in the last two polls.10 However, more recent surveys indicate that public attitudes are shifting in the direction of a more accommodating stance toward China despite the absence of visible improvement in that country's human rights record. For example, a Times Mirror survey in 1995 revealed that 62 percent of the respondents believed that "the U.S. should not get involved in China's domestic affairs, even if it means overlooking human rights abuses," whereas only 29 percent stated that "the U.S. should try to promote democracy in China, even if it risks worsening relations with China."11

THE NEXT STEP in assessing hypotheses 3a and 3b is an effort to overcome the limits of the goals questions by analyzing assessments of actual U.S. foreign policy decisions and actions on issues that have a significant human rights element. Table 9 summarizes responses by Republicans, Democrats and independents among the general public to several human questions posed in the Chicago Council surveys; comparable results for the CCFR leadership sample are presented in Table 10.

Several points emerge from these data:

First, compared to the general public, leaders generally expressed more support for pro-human rights positions. This was most notably the case on questions dealing with South Africa and, to a lesser extent, on Soviet treatment of its minorities. In contrast, leaders and the general public had quite similar views on dealing with friendly tyrants; both agreed that it is "morally wrong" to back such regimes, but they also accepted the proposition that it may be necessary to do so if they are "friendly toward us and opposed to the Communists."

Second, some partisan gaps existed among the general public, but they were generally much smaller than those in the CCFR leadership sample, wherein Democrats were consistently stronger supporters of human rights positions.Further evidence on the impact of partisanship emerges from responses by opinion leaders taking part in the FPLP surveys to a series of foreign policy decisions with a human rights dimensions. Specifically, these include:
  1. Three decisions concerning the application of economic sanctions against South Africa (the Reagan administration's decision not to invoke them, congressional action imposing sanctions on Pretoria by overriding a Reagan veto, and the lifting of sanctions by the Bush administration after steps by South Africa to abandon apartheid);
  2. the imposition of economic sanctions on Poland following the institution of martial law by the Polish government as a response to the Solidarity reform movement;
  3. the decision to return refugees to Haiti;
  4. the level of Iraqi casualties in the Persian Gulf War;
  5. the relative weights to be assigned to stability and self-determination in post-Cold War policies for dealing with civil wars; and,
  6. the grant of most favored nation (MFN) status to China in the wake of its violent crackdown on protesters in 1989.
Responses by Republicans, Democrats, and independents to these actions, all of which were taken by the administrations of Republican Presidents Reagan and Bush, are presented in Table 11. The imposition of economic sanctions on Poland was supported by moderate majorities among members of both major parties as well independents, with a rather modest ten percent gap between the more enthusiastic Republicans (64 percent) and Democrats. Wide partisan gaps characterized responses to the remaining issues, with Democrats taking the stronger pro-human rights position on all seven of them. Five of the issues found a majority of Republicans on one side and a majority of Democrats on the other. The gap between members of the two political parties ranges between 20 percent and 44 percent, and the responses of the independents are in all cases approximately midway between those of the Republicans and Democrats.

Because all of these decisions and actions were undertaken by Republican administrations, the evidence does not enable us to answer one key question: Do these results merely reflect partisan support or opposition to administration policies, or are they expressions of more fundamental beliefs about the appropriateness of applying human rights criteria to foreign affairs?12

The next three tables explore the impact of ideology on assessments of foreign policy decisions that involve human rights issues. Table 12 and Table 13 summarize the views of self-described conservative, middle-of-the-road, and liberal respondents to several questions posed in the Chicago Council surveys. The evidence points to two main conclusions:

  • Although earlier analyses of these questions (tables 9 and 10) revealed the existence of partisan gaps, differences across ideological groups are considerably deeper.

  • And, as was true of partisanship, the ideological gaps are most pronounced among leaders, with differences between liberals and conservatives exceeding twenty percent in almost every case.
Further evidence of ideological differences among leaders emerges from the CCFR surveys. Table 14 presents assessments of the eight foreign policy decisions by respondents when they are classified according to their self-placements on a standard "very conservative-to-very liberal" ideology scale. Aside from the imposition of sanctions on Poland -- an issue with strong Cold War implications for which a punitive American response would be expected to gain the strongest support from conservatives -- liberals have consistently expressed the strongest pro-human rights views. Gaps between the most liberal and most conservative opinion leaders are typically huge, ranging from 28 percent upward to 73 percent on the question whether "too many Iraqis were killed in the Persian Gulf War." There is, moreover, a steady increase or decline of support for the human rights position as one moves from one end of the scale to the other.

When leaders taking part in the FPLP surveys are classified according to their general foreign policy orientations, their assessments of all but one of the foreign policy decisions once again reveal substantial differences (Table 15). The decision to grant China MFN status is the exception; only a third of the leaders expressed approval of President Bush's action, and differences across the four groups are not significant. The China MFN case aside, there are wide ranges of assessments, exceeding twenty percent, on all of the policy decisions. The hard-liners supported the imposition of economic sanctions on Poland but were consistently the least enthusiastic about allowing human rights criteria to govern policies toward South Africa, Haitian refugees, the Gulf War, and the maintenance of international stability. On the other hand, the accommodationists were the strongest supporters of human rights except on the issue of economic sanctions on Poland. In each instance, the isolationists and internationalists took positions in between the other two groups.

One of the key differences between hypotheses 3a and 3b is the extent to which human rights attitudes on domestic issues carry over to foreign affairs issues, and vice versa. The evidence summarized in Table 16 is especially germane because the four groups --liberals, populists, libertarians, and conservatives -- are defined solely on the basis of their responses to a wide array of domestic issues. According to hypothesis 3a, assessments of the eight foreign policy decisions should differ little, if at all, among leaders in the four groups. Hypothesis 3b, on the other hand, stipulates that there should be significant differences among them.

The results in Table 16 are generally consistent with the latter hypothesis. Leaders in all four groups defined by domestic policy preferences expressed moderate support for the imposition of economic sanctions on Poland, with somewhat stronger approval from the conservatives. Assessments of the remaining seven decisions gave rise to a consistent pattern wherein liberals took the strongest position in support of human rights emphasis, the conservatives were the most skeptical, and the populists and libertarians were arrayed in between. The range of responses among the leaders in the four groups was uniformly large, exceeding twenty-five percent in all cases.

THE FINAL STAGE of the analysis related to hypotheses 3a and 3b focuses on a number of domestic issues with a human rights dimension, including freedom of dissent, busing for purposes of school integration, the death penalty, the Equal Rights Amendment, and discrimination against homosexuals. Each of these questions was posed in three FPLP surveys. The analyses are initially aimed at discovering whether the background attributes that have already been shown to be strongly correlated with positions on the use of human rights criteria in the conduct of foreign affairs -- party, ideology, and foreign policy orientation -- are also associated with preferences on the domestic issues.13

The relationship of party affiliation to the five domestic human rights issues is summarized in Table 17. With one exception -- the policy of "barring homosexuals from teaching in public schools," which steadily lost support between 1984 and 1992 -- aggregate opinions on these issues have been remarkably stable, varying by only the slightest amounts over eight year periods. Partisan differences also have remained consistently large. In each case, Democrat expressed far stronger support for the right to dissent, school busing, abolition of the death penalty, and the Equal Rights Amendment, while Republicans were the stronger advocates of preventing homosexuals from teaching in public schools. Except on the latter issue, the policy preferences of both Democrats and Republicans remained quite stable across the three surveys. In all instances, independents as a group expressed views that placed them between members of the two major political parties.

When leaders taking part in the FPLP surveys are classified according to their self-placements on the ideology scale, the range of responses to the domestic human rights issues can only be described as huge (Table 18). Although fewer than a third of the leaders judged that the right to dissent damages American foreign policy, differences between liberal and conservatives on that question are consistently very large. For all of the other issues, the gap between the most conservative and most liberal leaders exceed sixty percent in each of the three surveys. But wide differences are not merely confined to those at the endpoints of the ideology scale; even those who describe themselves as "somewhat conservative" hold sharply different views from leaders who regard themselves as "somewhat liberal"; the gaps between them are typically forty percent and higher. Nor is there much evidence that the stark ideological differences of the earlier surveys are being bridged in the later ones.

THE FINAL STEP IN THIS ANALYSIS examines the relationship between foreign policy orientations and the domestic human rights issues. A consistent pattern emerges from the data in Table 19. On each issue, the hard-liners are the strongest advocates of preventing homosexuals from teaching in public schools and are most critical of the freedom of dissent; they are also the strongest critics of school busing, abolition of the death penalty, and the Equal Rights Amendment. Responses of the accommodationists, as a group, are precisely the reverse on all five issues. In each case, the isolationists and internationalists expressed views that placed them between the hard-liners and accommodationists.

The correlations between leadership opinions toward human rights abroad and at home are reported in Table 20. They provide further support for the hypothesis that views about human rights are in fact embedded within a broader political ideology.


THESE ANALYSES DO NOT PROVIDE CONCLUSIVE EVIDENCE supporting either of the hypotheses (1a or 1b) about how the end of the Cold War may have affected attitudes on human rights, or about the hypothesized (2a or 2b) differences between leaders and the general public on human rights attitudes. Possibly these inconclusive outcomes can be attributed at least in part the scarcity of relevant data.

A much clearer conclusion emerges on relative merits of the third pair of hypotheses (3a or 3b):

Attitudes toward incorporating human rights considerations into the conduct of American foreign policy are embedded within broader political belief systems that also encompass attitudes on domestic issues, and they are strongly associated with partisanship and ideological preferences.

There is little evidence to support the contrary hypothesis that skeptics are merely isolating foreign relations as a special domain that should be exempt from human rights concerns. But some caution is warranted even with respect to these hypotheses because the data are stronger for leaders than for the general public. Indeed, there are indications of stronger ideological linkages in the views of leaders than in those of the general public.

President Jimmy Carter had hoped that a concern for human rights abroad might provide one of the foundations for restoring at least some semblance of a bipartisan foreign policy consensus in the wake of the disastrous war in Vietnam. For many reasons -- not the least of which is that even the most ardent advocate of human rights will concede that in the formulation of foreign policy this goal must compete with other national interests -- President Carter was not more successful in this endeavor than his predecessors had been in promoting détente as a basis for a post-Vietnam consensus, or his successor was to be in creating a greater degree of unity by means of a massive arms buildup and a more confrontational stance toward the Soviet Union.

But that was then and now is now.

  • Has the end of the Cold War created a more benign environment within which to attempt, once again, to place human rights concerns near the top of the foreign policy agenda?

  • Specifically, have the dramatic international changes of the almost two decades since the Carter era been reflected attitudes that would provide domestic support for foreign policies that accord somewhat stronger weight to human rights criteria?
The evidence reviewed here, to repeat a point made several times above, falls short of the ideal. Nevertheless, it would appear to point toward some rather sober conclusions on this score.

First, there are few indications of a vast increase in Americans -- either among leaders or the general public -- who regard the post-Cold War international system as a more inviting arena for expressing human rights concerns. As was the case during the Cold War, when faced with tradeoffs in relations with other major powers, Americans are rarely inclined to place human rights concerns ahead of such security issues as arms control negotiations. The evidence thus does not provide much sustenance for the fears expressed by Henry Kissinger and other realists that a misguided public will endanger efforts to stabilize relations with major adversaries. Yet if human rights is not a top priority among the public, it is nevertheless a source of division. Heated controversies about appropriate American responses to events in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Rwanda, as well as China's trade status, would appear to reflect at least in part the state of a very divided public.

More importantly, the data reviewed above indicate that human rights attitudes are deeply embedded in partisan and ideological differences that also encompass a broader range of questions about the proper American role in the post-Cold War international arena, the scope of the country's global obligations -- including to international organizations with human rights missions -- and the resources that the United States can call upon in operating within that international system.14 These results provide further evidence in support of Forsythe's (1988: 50) conclusion that, "Human rights voting in Congress is largely but not completely a partisan and ideological matter, a prospect that cannot be viewed with optimism by the victims of politics in various foreign nations." That these differences also overlap with rather than cut across cleavages on some of the most contentious domestic issues is further reason for a cautious appraisal of the prospects for American leadership on human rights issues.


Professor Holsti expresses his indebtedness to the National Science Foundation for five grants that supported the Foreign Policy Leadership Project surveys of American opinion leaders; to Eugene R. Wittkopf for sharing some of his data from the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations and Times Mirror surveys; to Robert Jackson for obtaining data on human rights issues from the Roper Center; to Peter Feaver for helpful comments on an earlier draft; to Daniel F. Harkins for programming assistance; to David Priess for research assistance, and to Rita Dowling for secretarial assistance. Dr. Holsti prepared this article as a paper for the Nineteenth Annual Scientific Meeting of the International Society of Political Psychology, Vancouver, B.C., Canada, June 30 - July 3, 1996.

Dr. Holsti is George V. Allen Professor of International Affairs at Duke University and a member of the executive committee of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies.

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