Courtesy Reuters

What Price Principle? - U.S. Policy on Human Rights

Jimmy Carter has helped make human rights a more important factor in U.S. foreign policy and a matter of greater concern in most countries. What that concern can amount to is another matter. The perennial questions that have plagued the attempted marriage of morality and American diplomacy persist. Whose morality and at what cost to whom?

Like God, Mother and Country, human rights claim universal reverence. There are no calls for torture in what passes for polite society. The average American sees the Bill of Rights as an article of faith at home and an item for emulation abroad. Everyone should enjoy certain fundamental rights "be they political, civil, economic, cultural or social.

The main question is thus not whether most Americans applaud the President's general stress on human rights. They do. It is what they are ready to do about it. Words, while important, can be cheap and misleading. What happens when U.S. support for Soviet dissidents seems to sabotage détente, or if future economic sanctions against South Africa undercut U.S. trade? Are most Americans aware of the Administration's argument that promotion of human rights should include efforts to help fulfill economic and social needs? If so, would they accept an added claim on their tax dollars for increased foreign aid? Is the President right in claiming that Americans are as ready to do something about lapses in their own performance on human rights as they are to point fingers at others?

The answers are not clear. What public opinion analyst Pat Caddell once saw as a political asset for the Administration could become a liability. If the President proceeds on his present course of perceived retreat on human rights, he invites criticism. If, on the other hand, he pushes the concept of human rights to its logical conclusion, he risks stiff resistance in Congress.

The U.S. policy on human rights, in short, has reached a critical point of decision. It raises questions that need

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