These definitional arguments—and the ways in which they were manipulated by dictators of all stripes (but pre-eminently by Communists and their Western apologists)—shaped the foreign-policy debate in the United States for a generation. In the 1976 presidential primaries, Senator Henry M. Jackson of Washington, in a challenge to the detente policies of Henry Kissinger, argued that the classic American conception of civil rights and political freedoms had universal applicability and ought to be a central concern of U.S. foreign policy. Jimmy Carter picked up the theme, but once he was in office he distorted it badly: the human rights bureau in the Carter State Department not only argued for “economic, social, and cultural rights” but seemed to give them priority over civil rights and political freedoms. Moreover, the Carter team showed too little interest in how human rights are institutionalized in societies: which is to say, the Carterites paid very little attention to the linkage between human rights and democracy.
The Reagan administration is typically portrayed as having ignored human rights in its conduct of foreign affairs. But in fact it saved U.S. human rights policy from terminal silliness—largely through the efforts of two superb appointees to the post of assistant secretary of state for human rights, Elliott Abrams and Richard Schifter. Under Abrams and Schifter, and with strong support from the president and Secretary of State George Shultz, the priority of civil rights and political freedoms was vigorously asserted; Communist doubletalk about “alternative” human rights “traditions” was dismissed, correctly, as self-serving propaganda; and the linkage between effective protection of human rights and transitions to democracy became a driving force in policymaking. Though this approach was all too often savaged by the prestige press and by many Democrats, its efficacy is now on display throughout Latin America and in Central and Eastern Europe.
The latter, of course, was the scene of the contemporary human rights revolution par excellence. Ideologically, strategically, and tactically, the Revolution of 1989 was a direct result of human rights activism, in many cases inspired by the “Basket Three” provisions of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act. Moreover, in the Revolution of 1989 the prerogatives of genuine democracy were boldly asserted against the hoary Marxist fiction of “people’s democracies” and their emphasis on “economic, social, and cultural rights.” The transnational and ecumenical resistance community composed of Central and Eastern European human rights activists plus kindred spirits and friendly governments in the West was also evidence that “human rights” were not a concern within one political-cultural tradition alone. And during the decade-long run-up to the Revolution of 1989, another institutional actor of great power came onto the scene: led by Pope John Paul II, and drawing on the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church became perhaps the world’s foremost institutional defender of basic human rights, with important results in venues as various as Chile, the Philippines, South Korea, Poland, and what was then Czechoslovakia.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.