Virtually all politicians experience something of the tempering effects of public office, but it is rare indeed that an American president reverses his position on a major issue. Yet Ronald Reagan seems to have done just that, picking up the pieces of a human rights policy he tried very hard to dismantle in his first days as president. It was a hesitant and somewhat opportunistic shift, but ironically it may help to strengthen the policy he inherited.

From its first days in office the Reagan Administration made no secret of its contempt for former President Jimmy Carter’s human rights policy. The question of how much human rights should figure in American foreign policy had been a prominent issue in the 1980 election campaign. Even as a candidate, Reagan had associated himself with Jeane Kirkpatrick, whom he later designated as the United States’ permanent representative to the United Nations, and with her widely publicized view that Carter’s moralist human rights policy had been detrimental to American strategic interests.

One of the new President’s first acts was to nominate Ernest Lefever—a man who had suggested that the promotion of human rights abroad should not be the responsibility of the United States—to be assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs. From the outset, then, human rights advocates in Congress and outside the government braced for a battle with the new President.

By early 1986, the world had turned over many times. Human rights concerns had by then exercised a considerable effect on the Administration’s policies toward El Salvador, South Africa, Turkey, South Korea, Poland, Nicaragua and the Soviet Union, among other countries. Then, in February 1986, Presidents Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and Jean-Claude Duvalier of Haiti—American allies both, with egregious human rights records—were driven from office, with some help from Washington. In mid-March, President Reagan delivered a statement to Congress, claiming credit for these events and vowing in the name of human rights to continue to "oppose tyranny in whatever form, whether of the left or the right."

Public reaction was mixed. Some critics saw the statement as a cynical attempt to cloak the President’s appeal for funding for the Nicaraguan "contras," then under consideration in Congress, in the language of democracy and human rights. Others, including the President’s national security adviser, John Poindexter, claimed that the statement contained "nothing new." Still others hailed it as a reversal of the Reagan Administration’s adherence to the so-called Kirkpatrick doctrine, with its contention that "totalitarian" Marxist regimes should be treated differently than "authoritarian" dictatorships of the right, which were said to be less repressive, more susceptible to change and better for American interests.

In truth, the President’s statement should have come as no surprise—for in some part it reflected a shift already under way. In response to pressure from Congress and from human rights activists, the Administration had claimed for some time to have an "evenhanded" human rights policy, and a promise to oppose abuses by both the right and the left had become a routine part of its human rights pronouncements. As of February 1986, however, the White House was willing to back up its words with deeds—not only in Haiti and the Philippines, where Washington’s hand had been forced by events, but also in Chile, where the pressures were somewhat less urgent. The shift in policy had been gradual and often grudging; for all the President’s resounding words, his commitment to human rights was still limited in scope and his Administration’s future policy was far from certain. Nevertheless, there had been a change, a 150- if not a 180-degree change.


To judge the magnitude of this shift, it is helpful to look at the Administration’s early determination to downplay human rights concerns. The President and his conservative advisers were determined to mount an aggressive ideological attack on the Carter Administration’s policy, which they saw as a primary cause of America’s recent setbacks abroad—particularly in Nicaragua and Iran. Mr. Reagan’s intention to reverse this policy was, from the beginning, a crucial part of his effort to restore American power and enable the nation to "stand tall."

Jeane Kirkpatrick, then a professor of government at Georgetown University, had laid the intellectual foundations of the policy in two articles in Commentary magazine. "Dictatorships and Double Standards" is the better known, famous now for its academic-sounding distinction between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes; traditional autocrats, unlike Marxist dictators, "do not disturb the habitual rhythms of work and leisure, habitual places of residence, habitual patterns of family and personal relations. Because the miseries of traditional life are familiar, they are bearable to ordinary people." The intent of the article was not merely to cast doubt on what Kirkpatrick saw as an undue concern with commonplace tyranny. In her view, the Carter human rights policy was a symptom of a more serious disease: a disregard for the "centrality" of the East-West conflict and a "predilection for policies that violated the strategic and economic interests of the United States."

They were grave charges indeed. But even this essay was not quite as explicit, nor as harsh, as a later piece, "U.S. Security and Latin America," which attacked the Carter Administration not merely for "losing Nicaragua" but for giving it away—for using its human rights policy in an active and concerted way to bring down the regime of Anastasio Somoza.

Even as Kirkpatrick prepared the ground for a change in policy, a signal went out to the world with the election of Ronald Reagan. His campaign rhetoric was unmistakable as far away as Haiti, South Korea and El Salvador, and in all three countries human rights abuses soared in the period between his election and inauguration. Michele Montas, one of the intellectuals who was seized and expelled from Haiti in December 1980, explained that the Haitian authorities now "thought the international climate was favorable to this sort of thing. They thought human rights was over." In South Korea, some 1,200 dissidents were rounded up and 67 opposition papers were closed. In El Salvador, seven Americans were killed—four churchwomen, two labor advisers and a journalist. Back in the United States, a group of some 70 prominent clerics sent an open letter to the President-elect expressing concern that "military governments in many countries are viewing your election as a green light" for human rights abuses.

The President-elect and his advisers were undeterred. It was in this period before the Reagan inauguration that the so-called Committee of Santa Fe, a group of conservative experts on Latin America convened to advise candidate Reagan, stated in its blueprint for policy that the Carter Administration emphasis on human rights "must be abandoned." And only a few weeks after the inauguration, Secretary of State Alexander Haig announced at his first news conference that "international terrorism will take the place of human rights in our concern because it is the ultimate of abuses of human rights." A few days later, Ernest Lefever was nominated.

Nor were the changes merely rhetorical. The Administration proceeded in its first months in office to urge Congress to reinstate military aid to Argentina, Chile, Guatemala and Uruguay—all denied assistance under the Carter Administration because of their poor human rights records. Generals from Chile and Argentina trooped through Washington to discuss possible aid packages, as did President Chun Doo Hwan of South Korea. (The release of the 1980 edition of the State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices was delayed until after Chun’s visit, so as not to offend him with its description of the abuses committed under his rule.) In the meantime, U.S. delegates at multilateral development banks were instructed to reverse the Carter Administration’s opposition to loans for authoritarian governments in Latin America, the Philippines and South Korea.

Secretary Haig set out the Administration’s position in a speech to the Trilateral Commission in early spring 1981. "There are limits," he said "to what we can or should do to transform other cultures, customs and institutions." Moreover, he made clear, if human rights were to figure at all in this Administration’s foreign policy, they were to be used as a weapon against hostile communist regimes. In keeping with Kirkpatrick’s vision, the force of "our own example" was held to be the best method for correcting bad habits in authoritarian countries.

All in all, it was a formidable offensive, but it soon became clear that the new policy would have trouble lasting out the President’s term. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee put up the first resistance, before the President had been in office six months, by rebuffing the Lefever nomination. The hearings were bitter and highly publicized, and it was evident that what was under review was not so much Lefever as the Administration’s decision to dismantle the Carter policy on human rights. In early June, after being debated for nearly three weeks in committee, the nomination was rejected by a vote of 13 to 4.

It took some time for the Administration to regroup. The post of assistant secretary for human rights remained empty for another four months, provoking renewed criticism of the Administration’s lack of regard for the issue. The White House continued to press for new loans to military governments in Latin America. Ambassador Kirkpatrick visited Chile and Argentina, where she declined to meet with human rights groups, and Vice President George Bush traveled to Manila to toast President Marcos for his "adherence" to democracy.

Nevertheless, a change was clearly in the works—a change forced upon the Administration by its critics. In part, the White House was responding to the press and the general climate of opinion, but by this time various critics of the Reagan policy had also begun to coalesce into a loosely structured human rights community.

By the end of the summer, committees in both houses of Congress had stipulated that no military aid would be released to El Salvador unless President Reagan could certify, on a regular basis, that the government there was making progress in curbing human rights abuses. Already on the defensive, the Administration began to boast about the results of its "quiet diplomacy" in El Salvador and South Korea. By early autumn, it was clear even within the Administration that there was a national consensus for a more aggressive and evenhanded human rights policy. The result, in late October 1981, was an "eyes-only" State Department memo—reportedly drafted by Elliott Abrams, then assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, soon to be appointed to head the human rights bureau—stating in no uncertain terms that "human rights is at the core of our foreign policy."


The State Department memo marked the beginning of a new phase in the Reagan human rights policy; having given up its effort to downgrade the issue, the Administration now sought, in effect, to co-opt the idea and use it for its own geopolitical purposes, rather narrowly defined. In a period that more or less coincided with Abrams’ tenure as assistant secretary of state for human rights, the White House endeavored to appropriate the banner of human rights for itself—to use it in battle not only against communist regimes but also, in a more defensive way, against domestic opponents of its human rights policy. It was a brilliant strategy, no more than half cynical, and it almost worked.

Critics called the new approach hypocritical—so much lip service and manipulative argumentation that "cheapened the currency of human rights"—and in some part, it undoubtedly was. But the strategy foreshadowed in the memo of October 1981 turned out to be more potent than its critics had expected. For one thing, it allowed the Administration to strike a pose that was at once assertively moralistic—a quality Kirkpatrick much mistrusted—and staunchly anti-communist. For the President, this was a congenial combination, a welcome release from the cold and calculating Kirkpatrick doctrine. What took the Administration by surprise was just how congenial the new policy also turned out to be to the American people.

Not only did the moralism appeal, for different reasons, to both the left and the right, but it proved to be both hardy and indivisible. It was as if the Administration simply could not sustain its own skepticism about pursuing human rights, and with time its more assertive policy began to be taken at face value. Not only did the American public and Congress mean what they said about human rights—even in places like El Salvador and Guatemala—but in other areas the concern for human rights turned out to be surprisingly consistent with a broad range of foreign policy objectives. So, in the end, the Administration was caught in the net of its own strategy—its own half-calculating effort to co-opt the human rights issue.

Some of the calculation was apparent in the State Department memo. "We will never maintain wide public support for our foreign policy unless we can relate it to American ideals and to the defense of freedom." So ran an italicized sentence in the first paragraph, and from there on, the subject of the memo remained politics, not moral conviction. The first part of the short document, including a section on "East-West Relations and the Battle for Western Opinion," focused on the Administration’s standing among West Europeans and among congressional critics and other domestic opponents—and it suggested that the White House should appeal to these groups by taking the offensive on human rights. The ultimate purpose of the policy was to advance American ideals at the expense of communism, but human rights seemed very much a means to an end; human rights, according to the memo, "give us the best opportunity to convey what is ultimately at issue in our contest with the Soviet bloc."

A later section outlined a two-track human rights policy—a "positive" effort to expound democratic values and shame the Soviet Union, complemented by a "negative" policy of scolding both friends and adversaries for their serious abuses. The author of the memo made it clear that the United States would not necessarily take action against such allies; he reiterated Kirkpatrick’s point that "it does not help human rights to replace a bad regime with a worse one, or a corrupt dictator with a zealous Communist politburo." Still, in his view—and he knew it would mean "trouble"—"we must be honest," even about violations by allies.

Less than a week after the memo was circulated, the White House nominated Abrams to be assistant secretary for human rights. His confirmation proceeded without problems, and he quickly began to make his mark at the bureau, repeating much of the language of the confidential memo in his introduction to the 1981 edition of the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, published in February 1982. Human rights advocates reacted with some skepticism and mixed reviews.

The memo’s suggestion that the Administration must be honest about violations by allies and friends was, to some extent at least, borne out in the 1981 country reports. In some entries, particularly those on countries where the United States had a significant geopolitical stake, the Lawyers Committee for International Human Rights found evidence of distortion in both language and emphasis. On the whole, however, the committee hailed the volume for its comprehensive and objective reporting. That assessment has been repeated each spring, when the human rights community—the Lawyers Committee was joined the next year by Americas Watch and Helsinki Watch—issues a review of the most recent year’s country reports. Each year, however, the three groups also ask when the Administration will begin to act on the information it has compiled.


The Administration began to put the State Department memo into practice—in international forums and official pronouncements first of all, but also in places like El Salvador, where human rights abuses were extensive and routine. The 1981 country report on El Salvador did, as the memo suggested, make some effort to "speak honestly" about the violations there. But El Salvador was one of those places, also outlined clearly in the memo, where the Administration could not afford to press too seriously to end abuses, lest it destabilize an important ally. Thus, in January 1982, President Reagan certified for the first time that the Salvadoran government was making a "concerted effort" to comply with international human rights standards.

It was hard at the time to see this as an improvement in the Reagan human rights policy. In the eyes of the Administration’s critics, open contempt and disregard for human rights issues had been replaced by a hypocritical show of interest—different from the earlier disregard only in that it could not be attacked as such. The Administration was now officially committed to human rights, but only as the flimsiest of covers for a policy in which human rights were clearly among the least important in a long list of its concerns in El Salvador.

According to human rights organizations, in 1982 more than 6,000 civilian noncombatants were killed by Salvadoran government forces and paramilitary groups. Yet the toll was significantly lower—almost half—than that recorded in 1981, and it enabled the President to talk about "progress" when he certified a second time in July 1982 and again in January 1983. By July 1983, when Secretary of State George Shultz certified for the fourth and last time, the Administration had refined its language even further; by then, it was said that the progress was "disappointingly slow" and that it "falls short" of what had been sought, but that aid should continue nevertheless because there had been improvement. The formula was of a piece with the Administration’s larger strategy in El Salvador—one that seemed to show a careful and informed concern for human rights abuses but managed largely to disregard them when it came to helping the Salvadoran armed forces.

Congress and human rights groups persevered nevertheless, pressing the Administration to continue talking about Salvadoran abuses, until eventually the White House had to take steps to back up its words. The disputes in Washington continued unabated throughout 1983, growing more sophisticated all the time. At issue now was no longer whether human rights should matter, but precisely how extensive abuses had been, whether the Salvadoran government was making a genuine effort to investigate and end them, whether the government-controlled military or the extreme right was doing the killing, and which of the Salvadoran human rights monitoring groups could be relied upon to provide an accurate account.

It was a grim and often arcane debate. At times, it was also rather angry. Nevertheless, in the end, the debate seems to have kept the issue alive in the minds of the Salvadoran armed forces. Whatever signals the White House was sending by continuing to certify and provide military aid, the Administration’s dispute with Congress and the human rights community was clearly audible in San Salvador, and it sent a very different message. Perhaps even more important, the debate served to keep the issue alive within the Administration, forcing it to pay increased attention to human rights.

The payoff came in the second half of 1983, when Washington made a serious effort to push the Salvadorans to improve their record. Outgoing U.S. Ambassador Deane Hinton set the tone in July with a strong speech about human rights delivered in San Salvador. His successor, Thomas Pickering, backed him up with an added emphasis in November, stressing that Congress was likely to withhold aid unless the Salvadoran performance improved. The autumn months brought a series of visitors to El Salvador—including Henry Kissinger, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and, in mid-December, Vice President Bush—all of whom pressed home concern about human rights abuses. The vice president’s visit in particular marked an important shift in Administration policy, for he carried a letter from President Reagan to President Alvaro Magaña listing names of officers thought to be involved in the death squads and urging that they be removed.

Even then, however, the signal from Washington was somewhat mixed, for on December 1 the President had abruptly vetoed legislation requiring him to certify human rights progress. This meant that, whatever was said about human rights in Washington or San Salvador, there would be no interruption of U.S. aid. Nevertheless, the vice president’s message seemed to get through, and the Salvadoran government took steps to purge some military leaders and expedite the prosecution of those involved in the killing of the four American church-women. It was limited progress, to be sure, but more than anyone had expected from either the Administration or its Salvadoran allies. Once again, the Administration had been forced by its critics to pay attention to human rights abuses. The trouble, in El Salvador at least, was that the White House still seemed merely to be playing a part.


Back in Washington, other members of the Administration were caught up with the second track of the human rights policy proposed in the October 1981 memo—the assertive campaign on behalf of democratic values. The President himself was very much drawn to this approach—conceived as a deliberate shift away from the Carter emphasis on torture, disappearances and absence of due process—and he gave it a big send-off in his speech before the British Parliament in June 1982. Chiding the Soviet Union in the name of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he announced a major initiative "to foster the infrastructure of democracy." Assistant Secretary Abrams elaborated the theme in his introduction to the 1982 country reports: from now on, the Administration’s approach to human rights would be to "treat not only the symptoms but the disease."

The Administration went ahead with a program of conferences, studies, exchanges and grants, culminating in December 1983 with the creation of the National Endowment for Democracy, a federally funded private corporation to encourage democracy around the world. The endowment has been surrounded by controversy from the start, although most critics quarrel less with its purpose than with the way that it has gone about executing that mandate—intervening in a partisan way in a Panamanian election, for example, and supporting right-wing groups opposed to the socialist government in France.

Critics of the Reagan human rights policy have not generally been in the forefront of opposition to the National Endowment for Democracy or the President’s propaganda offensive against the Soviet Union; virtually no human rights organization disagrees with the notion that democratic institutions are in the long run the best guarantor of rights. Critics have, however, raised a number of questions about the way the President’s emphasis on democratic values seemed at times to obscure and distort his policy toward human rights.

The use of human rights for propaganda purposes has in some instances seemed to dilute the meaning of the term, as when President Reagan and Secretary Shultz charged that the Soviet downing of a Korean Air Lines Boeing 747 in September 1983 was a violation of the human rights of the 269 people killed. But the civil libertarians who dominate the leading human rights monitoring groups also felt that the focus on democracy was a way of evading many of the human rights concerns that had prevailed in international forums and in the Carter years; by emphasizing political rights and democratic institutions, it was felt, the Reagan Administration has effectively downplayed more fundamental rights associated with what is called "the integrity of the person"—the right not to be killed, tortured or imprisoned at will.

More serious yet, the democracy initiative has on occasion turned out to be something of a smoke screen, covering the Administration’s hesitation to press "friendly" dictators who abused human rights. Argentina is one case in point, a place where the Administration showed little interest in human rights or democracy—in fact, Ambassador Kirkpatrick and others had made a special point of maintaining warm relations with members of the military government and encouraging renewed U.S. aid—until events over which the United States had no control led to the election of President Raúl Alfonsín. Thus, even as late as spring 1983, when it became clear that the Argentine military government would not last out the year, the White House was still committed to "quiet diplomacy."

Two days before Alfonsín was inaugurated in December 1983, the Reagan Administration certified that Argentina’s human rights record had improved enough to warrant the resumption of military aid. As it happened, the Alfonsín government, which owed much of its support to the fact that it had kept its distance from the military, was not particularly interested in the resumption of aid, and it made a point of saying so. Today, however, Argentina figures prominently on the Administration’s list of Latin American countries that it has helped move toward democracy.

The Administration’s emphasis on democracy also served a troubling purpose in El Salvador, where the existence of formal democratic institutions helped to disguise the role that the military continued to play in running the country, despite its well-known record of human rights abuses. American televison viewers were naturally thrilled to watch thousands of Salvadorans making their way to the polls in 1982 and 1984, often in the face of great inconvenience and threats of reprisals. What Americans tended to forget was that both President José Napoleón Duarte and his predecessor Alvaro Magaña survived in office only at the sufferance of the armed forces and often had some difficulty controlling them.


The national debate about human rights seemed to have reached a standoff by the final year of President Reagan’s first term. There was some trouble brewing in Chile and the Philippines but the American public had not yet focused much attention on the human rights situation in either country. Many Latin Americans had given up hope that the issue would ever again play the part it had once played in U.S. policy toward their governments. Disputes between Abrams and the human rights community had reached an acrimonious pitch, and in contrast to debates in earlier years their quarrel now seemed unlikely to have much of an effect in forcing changes in Administration policy.

Abrams had insisted from the beginning that his approach and that of the Carter Administration were not as different as they seemed—that the main difference was one of tactics. "Effectiveness" was the word that appeared again and again, in his speeches and introductions to the State Department country reports, until it became a code word for the Reagan preference for quiet diplomacy over public denunciations of our allies. Underneath all of the talk about means, however, there was a much more fundamental difference, which began to come out more explicitly as the debate grew more bitter. The real question at issue between the Administration and the human rights community was whether human rights were necessarily subordinate to the nation’s larger geopolitical concerns.

Abrams clearly believed that they should be. As his 1981 memo stated bluntly, the very purpose of a human rights policy should be to convey to the public, at home and in Europe, just what the difference was between East and West. From the beginning, Abrams encouraged the President to use human rights as a rhetorical weapon against Moscow. And, like Secretary Haig and Ambassador Kirkpatrick before him, he harbored great reservations about the geopolitical consequences of a policy that threatened to destabilize our "friends."

"It is not enough," Abrams told a reporter in 1982, "to ask who is in power and what is he like. We also have to ask what is the alternative, what are the likely prospects for improvement." By December 1983 he was even more explicit, noting in a speech delivered in New York that human rights are "not a free-floating goal to be considered in isolation each morning. We do not betray the cause of human rights when we make prudential judgments about what can and can’t be done in one place at one time."

The monitoring groups have for the most part taken a more idealistic view—that human rights policy should be based on strictly humanitarian concerns—and have criticized Abrams for allowing the issue to be used as an instrument of geopolitics. The Lawyers Committee, Americas Watch and Helsinki Watch put the charge pointedly in January 1985, in a report on the Administration’s record in 1984; in their view, Abrams had "developed and articulated a human rights ideology which complements and justifies Administration policies"—and in doing so, had compromised his mandate and the integrity of his bureau. Such critics argued further that the Administration had betrayed human rights by trying to make them a matter of policy rather than law—making what should be an absolute standard hostage to the whims of public officials and partisan political debate.

Abrams found such criticisms entirely unrealistic. He charged sharply that many human rights organizations "are political, whether they admit it or not," and are determined to do what they can to "restrain the American role in the world." But he also argued with some persuasiveness that the government simply cannot "rise above" political concerns, and that it would not want to even if it could. "Strategy," he asserted, "is crucial"; whatever the goal, no foreign policy can hope to succeed without "a sense of reality" and "a sense of priorities."

It was not an unreasonable argument. The trouble, in practice, was that the Reagan policy was often so pointedly political in its focus that it undermined the credibility of what the White House said about human rights. The policy in Nicaragua was an example. It was, in one sense, an extremely clever effort, the Administration’s most successful bid to co-opt the human rights idea. Sometime in the middle of Mr. Reagan’s first term, the White House began a major campaign to draw attention to the Sandinista government’s disregard for democratic values. Most, if not all, of the charges were sound and the strategy worked, up to a point. Certainly by 1984 the American press and public were considerably more concerned about human rights abuses in Nicaragua than about those—and they were still much worse—in neighboring Guatemala and El Salvador.

But the Administration did not stop there. It was so determined to have human rights on its side—to appear to the world to be in favor of freedom and opposed to tyranny—that it eventually began to defend the human rights record of the anti-Sandinista rebels, even against well-documented charges by the human rights community and the press. Neither Congress nor the public were persuaded, and the controversy has made it considerably harder for the White House to get funding for the contras, despite widespread antipathy for the Nicaraguan government.


In other countries, particularly South Africa, the American public has made it fairly clear that it too sees human rights as an absolute good—a universal aspiration to be pursued for its own sake, without too much regard for geopolitics. The geopolitical question is rather murky in South Africa. Obviously, the stakes are high—for geographic reasons and because of the region’s vast mineral wealth. But the American people have not been persuaded by the conservative argument that it necessarily runs against the U.S. interest to press for accelerated change. Whatever the reason—be it sophisticated geopolitical calculation or simple moral instinct—most of the Americans who have taken an interest in the region have seemed quite certain that continuing the status quo in South Africa does not serve the larger interests of the United States.

The national debate about South Africa that began in 1984 has also been a decisive rebuke for the Administration’s commitment, justified from the beginning by geopolitical concerns, to quiet diplomacy. In South Africa it went by another name—"constructive engagement"—but the reasoning was very much the same. Concerned above all not to destabilize an important ally, and thus not to encourage Soviet designs, the Administration took the position that the white leadership of South Africa was more likely to respond to supportive coaxing toward reform than to confrontation and exigent demands.

This put the Administration formally on the side of change but allowed it to renew a wide range of cooperative ties—exports of non-lethal military equipment, training in America for South African naval personnel, and more consistent support for the South African government in several international forums including the International Monetary Fund (IMF). American contacts with black South Africans were significantly reduced and in 1983 Washington failed to oppose the creation of separate parliamentary chambers for Asians and people of mixed race—an arrangement that continued to shut blacks out of the political equation.

Public pressure for the United States to take a more aggressive stand in favor of change began in earnest in early 1984, and in this case the pressure came not only from human rights activists but from a rich variety of American citizens and institutions. The initial impetus came from events in South Africa—a spate of demonstrations and violent repression following the implementation of the parliamentary reforms. The first to respond in the United States were universities and municipal governments, which took financial initiatives against South Africa, followed in short order by several congressional efforts to pass punitive legislation. By October, people were dying in racial violence in South Africa, and five American state legislatures had passed divestment laws. The Administration started to speak out more vehemently against apartheid but firmly opposed taking punitive action. In November, prominent Americans—black and white congressmen, local politicians, labor leaders and other activists—began to be arrested for protesting at the South African embassy and consulates around the country.

The AFL-CIO, the American Bar Association and significant portions of the business and financial communities had added their voices to the uproar by the time several key Republicans—including Representative Jack Kemp of New York and Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana—broke with the White House over South Africa. In March 1985, South African police opened fire on 4,000 demonstrators, and still the Administration refused to budge. Not until fall, after the House had approved a package of sanctions and a similar bill looked certain to pass in the Senate, did the President finally give in and issue an executive order imposing punitive measures, milder than those in the pending Senate bill. It had taken an enormous push from the American public and a burst of violence in South Africa, but the episode dealt a crushing blow to the Reagan defense of quiet diplomacy. Even more important for the future, it revealed a large American constituency in favor of an aggressive human rights policy.


There is, to be sure, no consensus—and no unchanging rule—about whether quiet entreaties or noisy pressure are more effective in encouraging human rights observance. The monitoring groups generally favor public pronouncements, although even they concede that this can be a tricky question, best decided on a case-by-case basis. Assistant Secretary Abrams tended to see public pressure as a last resort, and he argued untiringly for maintaining relations with even the worst abusers on the grounds that this gives the United States its most effective leverage. The great paradox—and the great boon to human rights activists—was that Abrams’ own effective public style often helped to draw attention to violations that might otherwise have gone largely unnoticed.

Human rights abuse had, for example, been commonplace in Turkey—troubling to activists here and in Europe, but hardly a significant issue for most Americans—until a bitter dispute erupted in mid-1984 between Abrams and Helsinki Watch. The arguments were again about tactics—what would be the best way to encourage Ankara to improve its record—and about the relation between human rights and geopolitical concerns. Abrams also made a point, in the American press and in a speech in Ankara in July, of disparaging the "ill-informed and self-righteous" human rights community. The playwrights Harold Pinter and Arthur Miller joined the fray; they traveled to Turkey to look into abuses and had a public quarrel with the United States ambassador. The controversy attracted considerable attention—including, eventually, congressional hearings—and has made a significant impact in Turkey, where human rights have now become a major issue in the domestic political debate.

Nor is Turkey the only example; the human rights community claims that its factual disputes with Abrams—generally about the extent of abuses and who exactly was responsible—have on the whole had a beneficial effect, encouraging both the Administration and its critics to upgrade their reporting efforts. Monitoring groups that used to issue skimpy flyers, designed merely to draw attention to an offending country, now publish lengthy, detailed reports; a recent volume on North and South Korea ran to more than 350 pages. They also time their studies carefully to coincide with congressional decisions and regularly revise them to keep abreast of events.

To an outsider, this public disputation often seemed unnecessary and distracting—a needlessly ad hominem and bitter controversy for controversy’s sake. Yet on other occasions, it seemed to serve a useful purpose, conferring new legitimacy on human rights issues and providing the noisy background clamor—the evidence of domestic American concern—that was often needed to give some meaning to the Administration’s quiet diplomacy.

Abrams moved on in the second term to become assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, and his successor at the human rights bureau, Richard Schifter—formerly the U.S. representative to the U.N. Human Rights Commission—is not likely to attract nearly the same attention. Schifter is a soft-spoken, lawyerly man, uncomfortable with confrontation and polemics, who does not seem to find the limelight particularly congenial; in contrast to the treatment of Abrams’ arrival at the human rights bureau, Schifter’s appointment was hardly reported in the press. Both he and the human rights establishment expect that their relations will now take on a friendlier cast, but activists worry that human rights may suffer in the long run from a lack of publicity.

The White House itself has begun to show some uncertainty on the question of tactics. In 1986 it resorted to quiet diplomacy in a place where it had never dreamed of using it before—the Soviet Union. Open condemnation of communist human rights abuse had been a pillar of the Reagan policy from the start. It was a natural instinct on the President’s part and a constant American refrain in international forums, particularly the review conferences of the Helsinki accords held in Madrid and Ottawa. To be sure, even on this subject the Administration’s signals were mixed, and the lifting in April 1981 of the U.S. embargo on grain shipments to Russia had seemed to undermine much of the President’s tough talk. Nevertheless it was universally assumed that some sort of rough "linkage" between Soviet human rights improvements and friendlier U.S.-Soviet relations was and would remain a fact of life under the Reagan Administration.

Secretary of State Shultz gave the first signals that policy was changing in a Los Angeles speech delivered in October 1985, in which he noted the "limitations" of a linkage policy. Conservatives began to wonder further about Reagan’s commitment to Soviet human rights when he resisted their pressure, in July 1985, to repudiate the Helsinki Final Act. (They argued that Soviet abuses had if anything grown worse in the ten years since it had been signed.) Yet few Americans noticed in November, when the President told a British Broadcasting Corporation radio interviewer that he didn’t see the point, in this realm of superpower relations, either of public discussion or of "accusing fingers being pointed at each other." It thus came as a surprise, a few days after the U.S.-Soviet summit meeting in Geneva in November 1985, when Reagan told his cabinet that there would, for a time at least, be no more public pressure on Moscow to improve its human rights record.

The American public was rather baffled, but the President seemed convinced—apparently on the advice of former President Richard Nixon—that a less combative approach might be a more effective way of achieving not propaganda victories but real results. As he told the cabinet, it no longer made sense to him, "in a world of politics, to try to push someone in a corner in which he must then publicly try to get out of that corner and in doing that appear to take orders from a figure in another government." In February 1986, Soviet dissident Anatoly Shcharansky was released from prison and allowed to leave the Soviet Union, and in March the President made good on his word, refusing to meet with Yelena Bonner, the wife of Andrei Sakharov.

It was an astonishing reversal, and the world waited to see if it would last. The results also remain to be seen—and to be meaningful they must involve more than the release of an individual or two—but there is something appealing about the new approach. In a case such as this, where it is clear that President Reagan is truly committed to achieving an improvement in human rights, it may not be necessary or productive for him to shout too loudly. In this instance at least, a combination of quiet diplomacy backed up by noisy public concern may well turn out to be the best possible strategy.


It may in fact be the ideal combination in other countries too. Certainly it is better not to have to grandstand or to bully other governments—and if the rest of the world were sure that the White House meant what it said about human rights, there would be less need to do either. About the Reagan Administration the rest of the world had been far from sure; and Washington’s public support for human rights in Haiti, Chile and the Philippines had a significant impact. The Reagan statement promising to sustain a more evenhanded human rights policy was also welcome, tentative as the new position may be.

Part of the problem is that in all these three cases, the Administration seemed so hesitant, as if it were once again being backed into a virtuous position by the public and Congress. In fact its hand had been forced. But this time the Administration was reacting to other pressures as well—pressures from within Chile, Haiti and the Philippines. In all three countries, Washington found it necessary to shift its position when the dictator it had been supporting began to lose his battle with his people and the opposition forces he had been repressing for years. In Haiti, there were riots and a revitalized Catholic church determined to play a role in national political life. In Chile, there were also riots, and such political polarization that Washington began to lose hope for a return to democracy. There, the Administration began to act in earnest only in late 1985, when it perceived the danger of what an anonymous State Department official called "another Nicaragua." In the Philippines, most dire of all, there was the growing threat of a communist takeover.

In all three cases, the Administration perceived that the promotion of human rights coincided with America’s strategic interests, and so it acted to advance those interests. In all three cases, the White House was extremely cautious, even reluctant, and it acted more out of fear than any heroic commitment to human rights. Finally, in all three cases, it calculated very carefully, and in no instance did it make a major push. Instead, it waited for the tide of events and then, when the end seemed near, seized an opportunity to take its distance from the faltering dictator. True, the Administration started nudging Marcos months before he fell. But when the crisis broke, Reagan almost missed the opportunity to act: it was not until several days after it was evident that Marcos had stolen the election—and lost the confidence of his people—that Senator Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.) made clear to Marcos on the telephone that the White House thought it time for him to go.

In Chile, too, there has been building pressure from Washington and from its new outspoken ambassador, Harry Barnes, who has made a point of reviving contacts with the democratic opposition. But in this case also, the Administration wavered, taking two steps backward for every one it moved ahead, voting against Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet at the Inter-American Human Rights Commission and then voting for him, condemning him at the U.N. Human Rights Commission but then allowing the World Bank and the IMF to proceed with plans for loans.

The Administration did not exactly cover itself with glory in either country. Yet there is much to be said for a human rights policy grounded in strategic interest. Such an approach would not produce a perfect human rights record. Humanitarian and geopolitical concerns do not always line up as neatly as they seemed to in Chile and the Philippines. It will not always be so easy or convenient to take the side of human rights, and when the two concerns do not coincide, it seems unrealistic to expect any American president to act against U.S. interests—no matter how noble the cause.

Still—and this is the lesson of the Reagan experience—human rights and strategic interest turn out to be consistent far more often than many Americans expect. Jeane Kirkpatrick thought it went against our national interest to push Somoza out of power in Nicaragua; President Reagan ultimately seemed to think that it advanced American interests if Marcos were ousted from the Philippines. In a sense, the Administration’s instincts were right from the start, or at least from the time of the State Department memo of 1981: there is—or can be—an important connection between geopolitics and human rights. The White House’s mistake at the outset was to try to use human rights as a mere tool of geopolitics—a self-serving and manipulative policy that eventually backfired. By March 1986, the Administration seemed to understand that it might, paradoxically, do more for American interests by pursuing human rights as an end in themselves.

In Chile, Haiti and the Philippines, America found it in its interest to distance itself from losing dictators and encourage the transition to democracy before it was too late. In other cases, like South Africa, it may be in America’s interest to promote human rights for no other reason than to demonstrate that the United States does indeed stand for something in the world. But even this sort of human rights initiative is unlikely to get very far unless it is grounded in realism and compatible with broader U.S. foreign policy concerns. So much "realism" may sound calculating in this context, but it has its advantages—for a human rights policy founded on strategic interest is likely to be far more consistent and reliable than a "purer" and more moralistic policy without underpinning. The Reagan turnaround on human rights may say less about the Administration than about the strength of the human rights idea—and it is indeed a tribute to the force of the idea—but if it has taught us something about the possibility of a strategic human rights policy, then it may not have been such a pointless detour after all.

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