What a rights-based foreign policy looks like

The Nobel selection committee awarded the 2009 Peace Prize to Barack Obama to empower him to pursue a foreign policy conceived according to progressive values.

The Nobel selection committee awarded the 2009 Peace Prize to Barack Obama to empower him to pursue a foreign policy conceived according to progressive values.

Regional security and U.S. foreign policy

That Barack Obama framed the Asia pivot as a re-orientation away conflicts he inherited in the Middle East to alliance-building in Southeast Asia suggests the continued salience of a regional security conception of U.S. foreign policy. That the administration was unable to execute this about-face and instead presided over cascading security challenges in the greater Middle East suggests that region in particular is likely to exercise outsize influence in shaping U.S. foreign policy into the future.

If American foreign policy toward the Middle East is to succeed—both for the peoples of the Middle East and for the United States—it must be founded and executed on a basis that acknowledges and advances foundational liberties, democratic values, and human rights.

The managerial mode of U.S. engagement with the region—that is, engagement predicated on the management of successive challenges without enacting policy to meaningfully address the grievances that motivate them—has produced, in recent memory, instances in which:

  1. competing U.S. agencies arm opposing groups within the context of a single armed conflict (Syria),
  2. security partners surrender weapons to and effectively arm an international terrorist organization (Iraq),
  3. allies use American arms and technologies to suppress internal/domestic dissent, rather than promote national or regional security (Iraq, Egypt, Israel, etc.),
  4. ad inf.

Given these failings, as well as those of recent iterations of a grand regional security architecture that includes the policy of dual containment of Iran and Iraq and the security bulwark provided by a no-longer unified GCC, the only policy orientation that will foster long-term regional stability and American interests is one that acknowledges rights in the context of promoting regional and American interests.

Getting right on rights

The Congressional mandate for the State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices dates to the Carter administration, but administrations of all stripes—including the present one—invoke rights in support of their foreign policy agendas.

The present failing is not defined by rhetoric so much as it is a failure of earnest commitment and execution, a decoupling encouraged by the perception that the “thick” needs of electoral politics prevail over “thin” commitments to principles abroad. This is merely an illusion.

International affairs and global policy defined the 2016 U.S. presidential election and inflected races on all levels. Economic and social anxieties had been and continue to be exacerbated by the perceived threat of immigration from Latin America, a phenomenon instigated by violence and weak institutions there. More acute yet were the effects of largescale immigration of Syrian refugees to Europe, an exodus that has deranged continental politics, inflamed ethno-nationalist tensions, and threatened the post-WWII security order catalyzed by the Marshall Plan and cemented by NATO.

Arguably, a firm American commitment to the peaceful protesters who took to the streets of Dara’a, vast tribal areas in Syria’s east, and the northern industrial centers could have stemmed the violence that was to follow. More regrettable yet is the Obama administration’s unwillingness to enforce its own (arbitrary) chemical weapons “red line” imposed on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This was worsened by the failure to meet the Russian intervention in the form of aircover for the regime’s subsequent pacification campaign. These failures were driven neither by military expedient nor by tactical consideration, but by domestic concerns over political ramifications. Obama understandably feared intervention would overextend American forces already committed to Afghanistan and still deployed to Iraq. His thinking was no doubt influenced by the Pottery Barn Rule of foreign intervention: you break it, you bought it. Given the view from 2018 it is difficult to imagine how any initiatives in the interest of peace enforcement alongside a properly constituted international coalition would have produced more unwelcome outcomes than those we are managing today.

Regional security remains a salient analytic framework, but an order that imposes internal domestic insecurity on foreign security partnerships and merely manages regional instability will produce inevitable spill-over and hamper its effectiveness. This has been among the grave failings of foreign policy shorn of rights considerations. When rights in allied states are construed as a precondition for durable domestic stability there, their value to American foreign policy thinking becomes clear.


Gamal Abdul-Nasser

Presiding over Egypt at the height of its modern political and social power, Nasser headed the Arab non-aligned movement, but was driven to seek Soviet backing after Washington failed to fund Egypt's development needs

History furnishes examples of American foreign policy failings that have been precipitated by reliance on rights abusers and autocrats so long as they played useful roles in the prevailing security paradigm. The Central Treaty Organization (Baghdad Pact) collapsed not because an Anglo-American buffer against Soviet encroachment in the Middle East outlived its usefulness, it failed because its existence was predicated on the survival of antidemocratic regimes that could not guarantee their own existence, let alone fulfill their security commitments to CENTO. Only three years after its formation the alliance was weakened by the fall of the Hashemite monarchy in Iraq, and it was further hobbled when war broke out between member states Turkey and Cyprus. It finally collapsed when the Shah’s government in Iran fell under the weight of its own illegitimacy.

Motivated by the hollowing-out of CENTO, the United States increasingly leaned upon Israel, first to suppress the Black September uprising in Jordan in 1970, and more heavily following the 1973 war. Motivated in part by domestic political considerations, the United States has pursued a foreign policy with Israel designated as regional bailiff. This cooperation has yielded unmatched levels of military assistance irrespective of the grave rights abuses committed against minority populations under the de jure authority of Israeli law and those residing under its de facto administration.

Progressive defense partnerships

U.S. foreign policy has for too long neglected the salience of rights and international humanitarian law as means of advancing the mutual interests Americans share with their allies and partners abroad. Countering Chinese influence in the global South will depend not only upon a strong traditional deterrent, but upon a development paradigm that matches in scope and ambition the Belt and Road Initiative. Not only does this initiative threaten to supplant American technical standards, but it augments Chinese political and cultural influence in finest-growing states where American involvement has traditionally been limited to security cooperation and arms transfers that contributed to arrested development.

Countering the rise of China need not involve the United States in a reprisal of the Cold War. Although marked by tense stability in the North, that period plunged the unaligned into desolating civil conflicts and proxy wars as the strategic logic of containment justified unwavering commitment to antidemocratic forces so long as they disavowed Soviet communism. This pattern can and must be avoided.  

The United States will at times find its own national interest is best served by working cooperatively with China. At other times, the greatest benefit may come from a reliance on the central feature of the postwar global order: that so long as the United States demonstrates diplomatically and materially the aspirational and realpolitik value of its partnership, it will have more allies than enemies. Gamal Abdul-Nasser (himself the populist response to decades of rule by a British puppet monarchy) nationalized the Suez Canal Company following American refusal to fund the Aswan Dam project, a piece of critical infrastructure desperately needed for rural electrification, taming destructive Nile flooding, and guaranteeing the agricultural produce to feed a booming population. In response, Britain, France, and Israel invaded Egypt and seized the canal they considered vital o their geostrategic interests, but even that did not drive the non-aligned Nasser into Soviet arms. Egyptian-American relations enjoyed something of a honeymoon when the U.S. and Soviet Union pressured the belligerents into withdrawal and the Americans sold Egypt surplus wheat.

Whatever its exact constitution, a progressive U.S. foreign policy will avoid the mistakes of twenty-first-century U.S. foreign policy by leaning on meaningful multilateralism in recognition of the fact alliances and international cooperation create collective security and the space for a pursuit of national interest unencumbered by pervasive security threats. Such arrangements do not bind the American hand, but give it freer rein.

This approach, incorporating the paradigm of regional security under the broad base of alliances founded on mutual interests, is in effect a rights-based, multilateral form of offshore balancing. Its success will depend upon the depth of a commitment to a broader conception of defense initiatives that is not limited to the material, but which encompasses the accumulation of political capital, mutual prosperity, and the stability of international partners that derives from broad cooperation. Foreign military and political leaders will be better able to marshal a sustained commitment for security cooperation when their actions enjoy the legitimacy conferred by domestic prosperity and that of their region. This must not be read as an endorsement of the zeal for institution building and adventurism that led to the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. To the contrary, it is a non-kinetic approach seeking to promote diverse American interests by addressing the upstream causes of the failure to produce open societies that are considered legitimate by their own constituencies.  

Isolationism and narrowly self-interested withdrawal from the world will not serve American interests. While it is true the United States lacks the power or political will to serve as the world’s sole beat cop, its position of unique power confers the responsibility to wield its power effectively and responsibility, including for its own long-term national interest. Repeating the cycle of American foreign policy that has been defined not by benign neglect, but negligent ignorance will only sow the seeds of the security challenges of the future.