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Some of the available survey data will be analyzed in the next section to assess three pairs of competing hypotheses about public and elite opinions on the appropriate role of human rights considerations in the conduct of American foreign relations. The hypotheses focus initially on the impact of the end of the Cold War, secondly on differences in the attitudes of leaders as compared to those of the general public, and, finally, on the extent to which attitudes toward human rights issues are embedded within broader political ideologies.

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The end of the Cold War

The quarter century for which survey data on human rights are available has been a period of almost unprecedented international change. It spans the waxing and waning of détente during the Nixon, Ford and Carter years; the inception of Cold War II during the first Reagan administration; the onset of another period of détente during the late 1980s; the end of the Cold War and disintegration of the USSR; and, during the early years of the post-Cold War era, the outbreak of numerous intra state conflicts that have often been marked by massive violations of human rights. Although the euphoria that attended the end of the Cold War for example, the "end of history" thesis has been replaced by a recognition that the growth of democratic values and institutions is neither inevitable nor irreversible, there are nevertheless reasons for thinking that these developments have not been irrelevant to public thinking about human rights.

More specifically, it is possible to develop plausible arguments in support of diametrically opposite hypotheses about how the end of the Cold War has affected American attitudes on human rights. According to one line of reasoning:

1a. 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.

This hypothesis is grounded in the view that the end of the Cold War has generally eroded American interest in international affairs, while also providing sustenance for the belief that the United States has neither compelling interests nor sufficient resources to permit it to assume either the roles of policeman or nanny of the world. (Schlesinger 1991 92). For example, Tonelson (1994-95, 127) has argued that in the absence of a powerful ideological Cold War rival, "the state of human rights around the world does not have, and never has had, any demonstrable effect on U.S. national security."5 Many holding this view also assert that a long list of domestic problems, many of which were neglected during four decades of Cold War, provide an ample agenda for America's attention, energies, and resources. More specifically, the argument is that although the end of the Cold War has not, unfortunately, abated massive violations of human rights, after a half century of very active international leadership during the period between Pearl Harbor and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Americans are experiencing an acute case of "compassion fatigue."

The alternative hypothesis takes a very different view of post-Cold War attitudes on human rights.

1b. The end of the Cold War has increased American willingness to apply human rights criteria in the conduct of U.S. foreign relations.

According to this position, the end of the Cold War has freed the public from any compelling need to view human rights issues through the lenses of its rivalry with the Soviet Union. Americans are no longer constrained by the argument, for example, that it is expedient turn a blind eye toward human rights violations by friends and allies--especially if the victims of such abuse can be depicted as "communists" or "communist sympathizers"--because the imperatives of the global competition with the Soviet Union must be given a priority that overrides undue fussiness about the domestic policies of those on the free world side of a bipolar world. (Hyland 1991 92). Or, as John F. Kennedy is reported to have said of Dominican dictator and human rights abuser par excellence Raphael Trujillo, "Sure, he's a bastard, but at least he's our bastard." Even some of those who earlier may have been persuaded by Jeane Kirkpatrick's (1979, 1981) apologias for support of some less-than-democratic Cold War allies, based on a distinction between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, may now be more likely to question whether her thesis provides a compelling rationale for overlooking systematic human rights violations. Finally, in contrast to the earlier period, the pursuit of human rights goals in the contemporary world runs less risk of triggering a major power crisis--a confrontation with China is perhaps an exception--than would have been the case during the Cold War.

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Leaders and the general public

A second pair of competing hypotheses centers on differences between leaders and the general public on the appropriate weight to be accorded to human rights in the formulation of American foreign policy. The first hypothesis is closely linked to a realist perspective.

2a. Compared to leaders, the general public is likely to assign a higher priority to human rights goals in the conduct of American foreign affairs.

Although there are some important distinctions among the various realist approaches to international affairs, adherents to this school of thought share a highly skeptical view about whether the public can make a constructive contribution to foreign policy.6 Because the average citizen is less sophisticated than leaders in his factual and conceptual understanding of international affairs, he is less capable of appreciating the distinction between core and peripheral national interests. Thus, members of the general public are more likely to indulge in emotional rather than reasoned and hard-headed appraisals of what is generally desirable and feasible in the international arena, as well as in any specific situation. Especially in an era when CNN can bring into every home graphic evidence of such human rights violations as deliberate starvation of populations, ethnic cleansing, extra-judicial punishment of dissidents, and other abuses, members of the general public are more prone to fall prey to the belief that for each such outrage there is an effective American remedy. In contrast, leaders are more likely to appreciate that in the real world, as distinct from some hypothetical ideal one, assigning a high foreign policy priority to human rights abroad is neither feasible nor desirable in most cases.

In contrast, the alternative hypothesis posits a quite different relationship in the human rights attitudes of leaders and the general public.

2b. 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.

This hypothesis is not grounded in a denial of the strong evidence that leaders are better informed and more sophisticated than the average citizen about international affairs. Rather, it is based on the reasoning that leaders have a better appreciation that such vital long-range national interests as a stable and sustainable world order are linked to the state of human rights and the growth of democracy abroad. Moreover, governments that respect human rights "are likely to be more stable and reliable strategic allies." (Posner, 1994-95, 136) In contrast, members of the general public are more inclined to accord primacy to short term goals and domestic problems, on the one hand, and, on the other, to experience "compassion fatigue" about the plight of human rights victims abroad.

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Human rights views: pragmatism or ideology?

The third pair of hypotheses yields divergent expectations about the extent to which views about human rights in foreign policy are narrowly circumscribed or, alternatively, are embedded within a broader political ideology. The first hypothesis adopts the former view:

3a. Positions of support for or opposition to a 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.

According to this hypothesis, skeptics agree with the classical realist thesis that a priority on human rights is neither desirable, because it may run counter to more compelling national interests as well as the principles of sovereignty and non-interference in the internal of other states, nor feasible, because it is rarely possible to extend effective American protection to victims of human rights violations abroad. According to this hypothesis, such views are quite independent of other policy preferences, for example, on domestic human rights issues. A concern for human rights must be situational, and opponents argue that foreign affairs generally constitute the wrong situation, especially because the fiat of American values and preferences does not extent beyond the country's frontiers. Moreover, if human rights criteria are to be invoked in any specific circumstances, they should reflect a sober appreciation of power considerations; it is more prudent to invoke them, for example, against Grenada or Panama than against China. Consequently, positions on human rights in foreign affairs are not correlated with general preferences on a broader political agenda, including domestic issues bearing upon human rights. According to this hypothesis, a pragmatic skepticism about a human rights emphasis in foreign policy should also be independent of partisanship and ideology.

The competing hypothesis stipulates that attitudes in support or opposition to a human rights focus in American foreign policy are part of a broader political ideology.

3b. Attitudes toward the priority that should be accorded to 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 reasoning behind this hypothesis is that supporters of a strong human rights focus are likely to believe that concern for such values should be circumscribed by neither geography nor political boundaries; concern for human rights is a core or terminal value, rather than an instrumental one. Or, to paraphrase Lincoln, they might argue that the world cannot--and should not--long endure a situation in which half of the people enjoy human rights that are systematically denied to the other half.7Thus, according to this hypothesis, there should be a strong correlation between attitudes toward human rights issues at home and abroad. Moreover, these attitudes are likely to be embedded in wider ideologicaldifferences and, to the extent that party and ideology are correlated, in partisan ones as well.

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Although many efforts to put human rights on the international agenda arose from the horrifying experiences of World War II, especially but not limited to the Nazi Holocaust, until the early 1970s human rights concerns played a limited role in the conduct of American foreign relations. As noted earlier, the conjunction of the domestic civil rights movement, the costly but failed effort to preserve South Vietnam, and a backlash against the realpolitik foreign policy strategies of the Nixon-Kissinger period stimulated various congressional actions in 1973 aimed at injecting a human rights component into American foreign policy.

It is therefore not surprising that there are relatively few public opinion survey questions about human rights prior to the 1970s. Scarcer still are standard questions using identical wording that have been repeated with sufficient frequency to offer the possibility of reliable trend analyses. The situation described by Geyer and Shapiro (1988: 388)--"Strikingly few questions about human rights have been repeated verbatim in national surveys, making it extremely difficult to track opinion trends" -- has not changed materially during the past decade. Even for the period since 1973 we have nothing that comes close to approximating the almost monthly surveys assessing presidential approval and performance ratings. There are, however, two continuing survey projects, both initiated during the mid-1970s and continuing into the present decade, that provide at least some evidence about American attitudes toward human rights.

  • In 1974, the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations undertook a major survey project on attitudes toward foreign affairs. (Rielly 1975). Subsequent replications of that study have been conducted at four-year intervals. (Rielly 1979, 1983, 1987, 1991, and 1995). Those taking part in the six CCFR studies include both the general public and smaller samples of leaders.
  • The Foreign Policy Leadership Project surveys of opinion leaders, initiated in 1976, have alsoincluded follow up studies at four-year intervals [1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996].8

In addition, the Americans Talk Security/Americans Talk Issues project has since the beginning of 1988 presidential election campaign undertaken a series of surveys, some of which include question about human rights. Finally, some additional evidence about human rights attitudes may be found scattered through surveys by such major polling firms as Gallup, Roper, Harris, and others. However, it should be emphasized that the existing survey data do not provide a fully satisfactory body of evidence to test the hypotheses presented in the previous section.

The analysis to be undertaken here is based on a broad rather than restrictive view of human rights. It thus goes beyond a narrow definition wherein human rights are limited to such civil and political "freedom of" rights as conscience, speech, assembly, and competitive elections, and "freedom from" rights against arbitrary arrest, excessive punishment, and the like. Evidence will also be presented about two economic aspects of human rights, as well as protection of the global environment. Thus, in terms of the classification scheme for human rights proposed by Scott Davidson (1993), the following analysis encompasses two core or "first generation" civil and political human rights, two "second generation" or economic-social-cultural human rights [hunger, the standard of living in less developed countries], and one third generation human right [protecting the global environment].

(Article to be continued)

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