CAMBRIDGE During Joe Bidens’ long career in the United States Senate, he set a record of supporting human rights as an objective of American foreign policy. Today, as chairman, Bidens’ commitment in this area is put to the test.
Foreign policy involves trade-offs between many issues, including security, economic interests, and other values. But when it comes to human rights, compromises often give rise to accusations of hypocrisy or cynicism.
Take the 2018 murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Former President Donald Trump has been criticized for ignoring clear evidence of a brutal crime in order to maintain good relations with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, better known as MBS.
The Liberals criticized Trumps ‘moderate reaction to Khashoggis’ murder as ruthlessly transactional and reckless of fact. Even the curator the Wall Street newspaper editorialized that we don’t know any president, not even ruthless pragmatists like Richard Nixon or Lyndon Johnson, who would have written a public statement like this without even a grace note on the values and principles respectful of the Americas.
Trump viewed access to oil, sales of military equipment, and regional stability as paramount, but ignored that maintaining values and principles attractive to others was also an important national interest. Advocating for human rights reveals to the world who Americans are and strengthens the soft power of the Americas, or the ability to get what one wants through attraction rather than coercion or payment.
Combining these different types of interests in foreign policy requires compromises, which gives rise to criticism of how compromises are made. During the 2020 campaign, Biden criticized Trump for turning a blind eye to the role of MBS in the Khashoggis murder. When he became president, he allowed the director of national intelligence to issue a declassified report that blamed MBS, banned 76 Saudi individuals from the United States, and restricted the use of American weapons in the Saudi war in Yemen.
Subscribe to Project Syndicate
Enjoy unlimited access to the ideas and opinions of the world’s greatest thinkers, including weekly long readings, book reviews, news collections and interviews; The year to come annual printed magazine; the entire PS archive; and more. All for less than $ 5 per month.
But liberal critics argued that Biden should have gone further and announced that the United States would not deal with MBS, thereby pressuring King Salman to install another crown prince. Many experts in the Kingdom say this type of regime change was beyond the capabilities of the Americas. Unlike Trump, Biden invoked American values, but raised the question of whether he had struck the right balance.
Similar issues arose over Bidens’ policy towards China. Biden criticized Chinese President Xi Jinping for not having democratic bones in his body, and when Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with their Chinese counterparts in Anchorage, they criticized the China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang and the crackdown on democracy. and its supporters in Hong Kong. As for Russia, Biden endorsed a statement that President Vladimir Putin was a killer.
Yet when it came time to invite leaders to a US climate summit, Xi and Putin were on the list (although the Saudi invitation went to King Salman, not his son). Was this hypocrisy or did it reflect a realistic assessment that climate change is a major threat that cannot be managed without the cooperation of the governments of these countries?
For example, China is now the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases and Saudi Arabia sits on the largest hydrocarbon reservoir. There can be no solution to our climate problem if they are not on board. We will have to learn the importance of exercising power with others as well as completed others if we want to deal with ecological interdependence. It means working with China on climate and pandemic issues even as we criticize its human rights record.
How then can we decide if our leaders are making the best moral choices under the circumstances? Like I say in my book Does morality matter? Presidents and foreign policy from FDR to Trump, we can start by making sure to judge them in terms of three-dimensional ethics that consider intentions, means and consequences, and drawing inspiration from three schools of foreign policy thought: realism, liberalism, and cosmopolitanism. , in this order.
Human rights should not be presented as pitting values against the national interests of the United States, because the values are part of the national interest of the Americas. We need to start with realism, but not stop there. In the realm of the possible, we need to assert our values in the ways they are most likely to make a difference. At the same time, if we do not start from realism, we will soon rediscover that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
The goals that US presidents have pursued over the years do not reflect a search for justice at the international level similar to what they aspire to at home. In the Atlantic Charter of 1941 (one of the founding documents of the liberal international order), US President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill declared their commitment to liberation from want and fear. But Roosevelt did not try to transfer his national New Deal to the international level. Even the famous liberal philosopher John Rawls believed that the conditions of his theory of justice applied only to domestic society.
At the same time, Rawls argued that liberal societies have duties beyond their borders, including mutual aid and respect for institutions that guarantee basic human rights while allowing people in a diverse world to determine their own business as much as possible. Thus, we should ask ourselves whether a leader’s goals include a vision that expresses values that are broadly attractive at home and abroad, but that carefully balances those values and assesses risks so that there is a reasonable prospect of their success.
This means that we judge a leader based not only on their character and intentions, but also on contextual intelligence when it comes to promoting values. So far, Biden has passed this test.