Public Opinion on Human Rights in
American Foreign Policy
by Ole R. Holsti
The Vietnam War had a significant impact on American thinking about foreign policy, the processes by which it should be formulated, and the values that should be reflected in the country's external relations. Among the many debates stimulated by that conflict were two that are central to this paper. First, the conflict in Southeast Asia revived interest in an issue--the role of public opinion in foreign policy making--that had become rather passé for most foreign policy analysts. As a result of the Vietnam conflict, even the distinguished journalist Walter Lippmann, author of several books (1922, 1925, 1955) on the thesis that the public is inherently incapable of playing the role demanded by classical democratic theory, came to question his prescription that only strong executive leadership, insulated from the vagaries of public opinion, could ensure the survival of democracies in a dangerous world. The Vietnam War also contributed to a heightened interest in the role that human rights values should play in America's relations with both allies and adversaries. A combination of the civil rights movement at home, revelations of gross human rights abuses by some American allies--including the South Vietnamese regime on whose behalf the United States was expending vast treasure and lives--and reactions to the stark realpolitik foreign policies of the Nixon-Kissinger period combined to kindle interest in human rights foreign policy goals that had rarely played more than a secondary role during the height of the Cold War.1
The links between controversies about the appropriate roles of public opinion and human rights are not, however, merely a coincidental result of having been stimulated by the same event. These issues were also central points of contention in the heated post Vietnam debates, both in academic and policy making circles, between proponents of two important and enduring perspectives on international affairs--realism and idealism.
I will begin with a brief review of the realist and liberal positions on public opinion and foreign policy, on human rights and foreign policy, and the linkages between the two topics. These two schools of thought lend themselves to some competing hypotheses, discussed in the next section, about public opinion on human rights. The third section describes the available survey data, and then analyses some evidence relating to these hypotheses. The conclusion addresses some policy implications of the findings.
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Liberals versus realists on public opinion and foreign policy
At first glance it might appear that this discussion really addresses two quite distinct issues: The role of public opinion in foreign policy making, and human rights as a foreign policy goal. In fact they are linked in several ways. Both issues are at the core of the venerable debates between advocates of realism and liberalism, the two dominant theories on the conduct of foreign affairs. These two schools of thought generally hold sharply divergent views on both the role of public opinion in the foreign policy process and on the appropriate weight that should be accorded to human rights in relations with other countries.
The first issue centers on the role of public opinion and its ability to make a useful contribution to the quality of foreign policy and diplomacy. A long liberal tradition, dating back to Immanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham and continuing through Woodrow Wilson, asserts that democracies are more peaceful at least in part because the public can play a constructive role in constraining policy makers. Elihu Root, a distinguished Republican foreign policy leader, effectively summarized the case for democratizing foreign policy in the initial issue of Foreign Affairs : "When foreign affairs were ruled by autocracies or oligarchies the danger of war was in sinister purpose. When foreign affairs are ruled by democracies the danger of war will be in mistaken beliefs. The world will be the gainer by the change, for, while there is no human way to prevent a king from having a bad heart, there is a human way to prevent a people from having an erroneous opinion" (Root 1922: 5).
In contrast, Alexis de Tocqueville, Walter Lippmann, E.H. Carr, Hans J. Morgenthau, George F. Kennan and other realists are intensely skeptical of the public because the effective conduct of diplomacy requires long-term strategic visions of the national interest, combined with the ability to pursue those interests with speed, secrecy, and flexibility. These requirements would often be jeopardized were the public, whose preferences are allegedly driven by emotions and short-term considerations, to have a significant role in foreign affairs. Lippmann's indictment of the public would gain the support of many realists.
The unhappy truth is that the prevailing public opinion has been destructively wrong at the critical junctures. The people have impressed a critical veto upon the judgments of informed and responsible officials. They have compelled the government, which usually knew what would have been wiser, or was necessary, or what was more expedient, to be too late with too little, or too long with too much, too pacifist in peace and too bellicose in war, too neutralist or appeasing in negotiations or too intransigent. Mass opinion has acquired mounting power in this country. It has shown itself to be a dangerous master of decision when the stakes are life and death. (Lippmann 1955:20).
Fears expressed by Lippmann and other realists notwithstanding, by the late 1960s or early 1970s a near consensus had developed on three points: public opinion is volatile, lacking any coherent structure, and is largely irrelevant in the conduct of foreign affairs. Were these three propositions generally valid, it would scarcely be of more than modest academic interest to devote much effort to describing public attitudes toward human rights. However, during the past quarter century some powerful challenges have been mounted against all three of them. Although the debate about the nature of public opinion is far from over, we now have a growing body of evidence that public attitudes are quite stable, have at least moderate degree of structure, and are often a significant factor in foreign policy decisions. (Holsti 1996).
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Realists and liberals on human rights
Realists and liberals also disagree about the extent to which human rights and humanitarian concerns abroad are proper objectives of foreign policy. The realist thesis is grounded in three propositions. First, an effective foreign policy requires that national interests be pursued with a sound understanding of the balance between risks and rewards, on the one hand, and relevant resources on the other. It is necessary and sufficient that such policies be focused on the demanding task of influencing the international behavior of other states, without taking on the added and extraneous burden of judging and seeking to reform their domestic institutions and practices as well. Realists often cite with approval the 1821 Independence Day address by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, in which he answered demands that the United States should assist other nations in gaining their freedom: "Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her [U.S.] heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own."2
The doctrines of state sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries constitute the second pillar in the realist argument against a human rights priority in foreign affairs. In an imperfect world, these norms are essential to avoid constant conflict. Without them, the international system would more closely approximate a state of perpetual war because no injustice--real or perceived--would lie beyond the reach of external powers that might be tempted to launch crusades to redress them. Although realists are generally not counted among the staunchest defenders of international institutions, they frequently remind their liberal critics that Article 2, paragraph 7 of the UN Charter explicitly endorses the doctrine of non-interference: "Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state or shall require Members to submit such matters to settlement under the present Charter."
Realists often cite the absence of internationally accepted standards of human rights as a third important reason for skepticism. Even if there were such a consensus, because the multiplicity of national interests makes it impossible to be consistent in the pursuit of human rights goals, to do so selectively is merely to invite charges of hypocrisy. (See, for example, Morgenthau 1978; and Kennan 1985 86).3
Although the conventional realist position, described above, opposes giving weight to human rights considerations in foreign affairs, some realists argue that although "morality should not drive foreign policy," there is no tradeoff to be faced because the diligent pursuit of American security interests automatically promotes global human rights: "Typically, of course, human rights and morality are advanced around the globe as a happy by product of specific American policies." (Pines 1991, 62; see also Billington 1987, Huntington 1989, Laqueur 1977, and Moynihan 1977).
Liberals bring forth a number of responses to the realist brief against a human rights priority in foreign affairs. They can muster evidence about the emergence of at least some international consensus on the definition of human rights. The 1926 international agreement to abolish slavery constitutes a pre-World War II example. The United Nations Declaration on Human Rights and additional international and regional treaties and institutions created in the wake of the Nazi Holocaust constitute further indications of widening agreement that the doctrines of sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs are not absolute barriers against international concern with egregious violations of basic human rights.4 Although events in Cambodia, Burundi, Rwanda, Bosnia, Chechnya, and elsewhere provide ample evidence that progress on protecting human rights is at best slow and uneven, there is a discernible international trend in direction of more rather than less concern for such rights. Thus, according to liberals, it is in its national interest for the United States to be a leader rather than a laggard in the undertaking. (See, for example, Hyland 1990, Kattenberg 1981; Maynes 1993-94; Posner 1994-95; and Vance 1986).
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The links between public opinion and human rights
The role of public opinion in the policy process and the priority to be assigned human rights concerns in foreign policy are intimately linked in the liberal-realist debate. Not the least reason for realist skepticism about public opinion is the fear that the public will give undue weight to human rights and humanitarian goals--what Michael Mandelbaum (1996) has derisively called "foreign policy as social work." Indeed, one of the worst realist nightmares is that the public, aroused by vivid television presentations about gross human rights violations in some country of no vital national interest, will press Washington to undertake a costly and ill-fated intervention at the risk of major losses while achieving little more than salving the American national conscience. Moreover, should the undertaking result in even modest casualties, the public may then clamor for immediate withdrawal, further damaging America's credibility and reputation for mature international leadership. (See, for example, Kennan 1993).
The liberal rebuttal to the realist case begins with the propositions that promoting human rights constitutes the "right thing" and that doing so is consistent with the most basic American values, including those articulated in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. Liberals further assert that their concerns for public opinion and human rights are not merely a reflection of dedication to fundamental democratic values, but also that they are grounded in a sober appreciation of two important political realities. First, long term domestic support, a prerequisite for success in any significant international undertaking, can only be sustained when the public is persuaded that the ends and means of foreign policy are consistent with basic American values--including human rights. As Jimmy Carter put it in his May 1977 speech at Notre Dame: "I believe that we can have a foreign policy that is democratic, that is based on fundamental values, and that uses power and influence for humane purposes. We can also have a foreign policy that the American people both support and understand." (Carter 1977, 12). Moreover, although the public may not be sufficiently informed or sophisticated to understand all the nuances of international affairs, they correctly believe that regimes which consistently mistreat their own citizens cannot be trusted to behave responsibly toward other countries, much less to carry out their international agreements.