On Judging American Foreign Policy: Human Rights, Political Realism, and the Arrogance of Power

Human rights and political realism offer two very different ways of approaching international affairs.[1] Here is not the place for an extended philosophical disquisition on the relationship between them, let alone their connection with the history of American foreign policy. Human rights and political realism have their unique traditions that are usually seen as starkly opposed to one another. But the interplay between them has become ever more apparent in an increasingly global society. This new blending of human rights with political realism penetrates the basic questions that citizens should be asking in judging American foreign policy in a meaningful way — now and in the future.

Human rights gripped the popular imagination in the aftermath of World War II. It seemed to offer a response to the cynical political realism of totalitarian leaders as well as the barbarism associated with what Daniel Rousset termed “the concentration camp universe” exemplified by Auschwitz and the Gulag. With the liberation of the formerly colonized world, and the passing of socialism as a mobilizing ideology, the idea of human rights provides new hope for a more civilized world. Human rights have their roots in the Bible, natural law, and classical humanist notions concerning the “dignity of man.” But the modern idea of humanity derives from the Enlightenment and the republican revolutions that extended roughly from 1688-1789. This was the era of the rising bourgeoisie whose vision of national self-determination was tied to the liberal republic and a universal understanding of rights. Each nation, in principle, was seen as having the right to determine its own destiny and the exercise of that right was seen as requiring a liberal state in which individuals enjoyed the benefit of civil liberties.[2] As for political realism, its beginnings can be found in the “Melian Dialogues” from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War (410 BC) and, even further back, in The Art of War by Sun Tzu (610 BC). Works such as these anticipated Machiavelli’s The Prince (1532) – what might be termed the Bible of political realism — and Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651).  Reflecting the rise of the modern absolutist state, these classics evince a fear of democracy, chaos, privilege, authority and stability. They introduce the ideas of raison d’etat and balance of power, sovereignty and leadership, national interest and geopolitical advantage, as well as a modern understanding of the claim that “might makes right.”  The perspective now associated with human rights, by contrast, were always employed to mitigate the exercise of arbitrary power on the part of states guided by little more than political realism.  Thus, human rights and political realism have traditionally been seen as political opposites.

Human rights are predicated on universal assumptions like the liberal rule of law and political realism on national interests. Ethical ends associated with law and liberty fuel human rights while the short-term means for securing power animates political realism. Human rights always privilege the freedom of the individual against the state while political realism champions the exigencies of raison d’etat. Leaving things at that, however, works to the detriment of both human rights and the prudent exercise of political power. If the pursuit of human rights is undertaken without reference to political interests then the policy will prove blind to existing realities.  Political realists have noted how often the road to hell has been paved with good intentions. Leading representatives of the realist tradition like George Kennan and Hans Morgenthau always insisted that recognizing the crass reality of power is the necessary condition for both defending and furthering freedom. But it is not sufficient. Simply trumpeting interest and power is just as dangerous.  It breeds distrust (especially for a superpower like the United States in a multi-polar world) as well as a moral climate in which all means are legitimate for all participants in the struggle for power. These implications are worth considering with regard to the use of terrorist tactics including those that brought about the tragedy of 9/11. Bluster about the dangers of “moral equivalency,” indeed, it is relevant only for those who have already been convinced. Using human rights cynically in order to further narrow forms of national interest is ultimately self-defeating. Noam Chomsky has been relentless in chastising those policymakers interested in nothing more than the short-term calculus. Any politics predicated purely on immediate and instrumental interest generates precisely the kind of instability – and potential for “blowback”[3] –that genuine realism should supposedly inhibit.  Making judgments with regard to its effectiveness, however, involves asking certain basic questions – that are still too rarely asked.

What is the strategic goal? The United States has a defense budget of more than $700 billion, a military of 1 million members, and 750 bases throughout the world. It is already present everywhere and political realists seek to strengthen that presence especially in “hot spots.” What this means, however, is not self-evident. “Mission creep” is becoming a defining characteristic of American foreign policy in the Middle East. It can apply to both a supposedly unconscious expansion of practical aims by decision-makers in the pursuit of a policy but also to the shifting justifications required to garner support from the citizenry for that policy. American intervention in Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11 was initially predicated on capturing Osama bin Laden. But that undertaking soon turned into a bombing assault on the Taliban, regime change, and nation-building with the support of the corrupt Karzai government that lacked both competence and legitimacy. As for Iraq, though conservative policymakers had been planning to unseat Saddam Hussein since 1991, the regime change they planned was more difficult than they anticipated. There was the anger directed against American “liberators,” the subterranean ethnic and religious conflicts always ready to explode into outright civil war, and the new state without legitimacy or a monopoly over the means of coercion. Mission creep has permeated many contemporary conflicts. It has fostered an image of the United States as self-interested, imperialist, and completely arbitrary in its goals and tactics – and that impression is not always erroneous.

Is there an ethical purpose? Ethical confusion in terms of justifying American policy in the Middle East has mirrored the practical confusion in carrying it out. Human rights fell by the wayside as the Bush Administration began substituting and then mixing one faulty ideological justification for another in Iraq. Identified with the “axis of evil,” which called forth a “war on terror,” Iraq was then castigated as a threat to Israel and, with its control of oil, the American national interest. But this argument stood at odds with the weakness of the Iraq military and the fact that Iraq’s secular Baathist regime was never a major supporter of terrorism in general or Islamic fundamentalist movements like al Qaeda in particular. False accusations concerning the existence of “weapons of mass destruction” were then introduced along with wild claims that Saddam Hussein was intent upon launching them against Israel and the United States. Once it became apparent that this, too, was not the case, hyper-realists began talking about human rights and spreading democracy to the Middle East.[4] All of this was reinforced by the belief that the Iraqi citizenry enthusiastically supported American intervention and that there existed a groundswell of unified national support for a new democratic order. The same jumbled set off justifications became apparent in Afghanistan.  American self-righteousness has only been exacerbated by such miscalculations and misperceptions. Plagued by a confused ethical purpose, compromised by suspect allies and without an exit strategy, the United States has consistently found itself entangled in a murderous – and, occasionally, even genocidal – set of foreign policy actions that serve neither human rights nor the American national interests.

Where is the support? Support for a policy (especially a dangerous policy) rests on a number of contingent factors.  Yet, increasingly, basic conflicts of interest over foreign policy have appeared between the political establishment and the citizenry. Political realists have always considered foreign policy the prerogative of the sovereign – or, better, the state that incarnates sovereignty. It is the state (or better its officials and their advisors) that supposedly determines the national interest and, by extension, whether intervention in the name of human rights is warranted in any particular instance.  Since the time of Machiavelli, political realists have justified the insular formation of foreign policy on a number of grounds: superior expertise (that apparently was lacking in Afghanistan and Iraq); the importance of decisive action (that has, too often, been indecisive and misguided) and the need to preserve national security (whose self-righteous invocation has produced the last refuge of the modern political scoundrel). Traditional political realists leave little room for democratic input in official decision-making. Demands for democratic input surfaced during the 1960s with the rise of “new social movements.” Calls for expanding democracy and social welfare at home generated demands for ethical accountability and transparency for policies undertaken abroad.  Political realism thus encountered human rights. What is known as the “Vietnam syndrome,” indeed, involves less the loss of a war than the lingering distrust of interventionist undertakings by much of the citizenry. Such skepticism proved warranted given the fabrication of evidence, the collusion, the sloganeering and the outright lying to justify the invasion of Iraq by so many in the Bush administration. Memories of Vietnam, fear of dissent, and fear of full disclosure contributed to the rise of a national security state along with the constriction of civil liberties beginning with the “patriot act.” Attempts to artificially fabricate consent over the long haul for any policy – let alone one that justifies itself in terms of moral claims or human rights – can only prove self-defeating in the world of Wiki-leaks and an age of global media.

Who benefits? Calculating costs is a normal and necessary element in determining whether to engage in any particular foreign policy. Costs are an ineradicable element in determining what is possible in any given situation and their underestimation will surely erode whatever original consensus existed for the policy in question: the Iraq conflict at its height cost the United States over $380 million per day, the American policy in Afghanistan stands at $300 million per day, and that the costs for involvement in the Libyan conflict are $55 million per day and rising. But the issue is not merely the costs undertaken by the United States. Too often, political realists fail to take into account the costs paid by the nations supposedly reaping the benefit of American policy. Lenin liked to say that you cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs: but sometimes breaking eggs results only in a mess. Costs always amount to more than dollars and cents. The United States has suffered a loss of moral capital through use of rendition, torture, and cynical talk about collateral damage. Its officials and its citizens, however, are amazed when the supposed beneficiaries of such policies appear ungrateful. They forget that others pay the often much steeper price for their decisions. Even should a democratic state emerge in Iraq, it will have come at virtually genocidal cost: A study conducted by Johns Hopkins University in 2006 estimated 600-800,000 dead in a country of 27 million; between five and ten times that number wounded; thousands in exile; ecological damage, and more –a cost paid by Iraqis not Americans.  Calculating the gains and losses of a political policy is not merely a mathematical but a normative endeavor. Both at home and abroad there is a growing and quite legitimate belief that the justifications for American foreign policy in terms of human rights are merely a cover for “oil” and other powerful lobbies (Bechtel, Halliburton, XE) or various geo-political interests. Costs and benefits cannot simply be calculated from the perspective of the United States or in relation to its policy aims. Little wonder that American expressions of concern over human rights abuses are greeted with such skepticism especially by those who should benefit.

Is there a double standard? American foreign policy in the aftermath of 9/11 has increasingly been associated with the use of a double standard by much of the world. The United States employed the doctrine of the “pre-emptive strike,” which would allow an assault upon any nation deemed a threat to national security by the American government, to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It has also been bandied about in order to legitimate bombing Iran’s nuclear facility at Nantanz and elsewhere. But the right to engage in pre-emptive strikes and support violent regimes and movements is denied to others. American political realists consider self-evident that their country should sponsor authoritarian regimes in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, brand others like Iran as “rogue” states, and appear to the world as the unblemished beacon of democracy. Given this attitude, once again, their often exaggerated moral outrage to attacks and criticisms can only seem hypocritical and self-serving to disinterested or non-committed parties. Finally, in a particularly perverse example of the double standard, the United States – the only nation ever to employ the atomic bomb (not just once, but twice) – finds it can provide nuclear arms for India and other countries of its liking and simultaneously threaten Iran with military action for building a nuclear facility that might produce a nuclear device in about ten years. There are policymakers who never encountered a crisis for which American intervention wasn’t a remedy: Richard Barnett called them “white collar militarists.” But, then, hundreds of wars, thousands of human rights abuses are taking place as these words are being read.  It is always legitimate to ask how egregious is this particular breach of human rights? Why is this particular nation the target? How does this crisis affect the national interest and the world community? One size does not fit all when it comes to foreign policy and the pursuit of human rights. This only makes the justification for any particular action in any particular instance more important. Indeed, what matters is less the inability to intervene everywhere than the ability to fashion a particular foreign policy intervention that is prudent and works to the benefit of the peoples involved.

The Arrogance of Power: Arguments that the end justifies the means have always been tautological — since it is only the means that produce the end. It always remains to be asked: what justifies the end other than the means used to bring it about. Liberal hawks like the journalist Paul Berman or the scholar and policy analyst,[5] Samantha Power,[6] or Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice have consistently endorsed interventionist policies on moral grounds. Emphasizing universal standards of behavior, (though not quite so vociferously when it the culprit is the United States), they stand for human rights wherever they are abused: and, usually, they come up with the same list of proscriptions on a sliding scale whether for Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Pakistan, Libya, Somalia – or Iran. Sensationalist publicity campaigns begin the process that usually leads to demands for sanctions, “strategic” bombings and — ultimately — regime change brought about my military intervention. These idealists simply assume that because the end is pure, even if the policy itself is somewhat vague, support can be mobilized. The costs are secondary because “the people” – the beneficiaries of their largesse – are always awaiting American intervention with baited breath. A dose of political realism wouldn’t hurt these idealists seeking to carry the banner of democracy on their bayonets. Effective foreign policy today rests on recognizing the interplay between human rights and political realism. Principles are not neatly divorced from interests[7] — and advocates of political realism should take heed. The United States has paid dearly for its contraventions of human rights its support for President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and (without even mentioning Israel) other questionable allies in the region like Saudi Arabia. Traditional cynicism about human rights and long-standing support dictatorial regimes clearly created blindness in anticipating and hesitancy in embracing the new movements associated with the Arab Spring.[8] There is an old saying that bears repeating: “Tell me who your friends are and I will tell you who you are.” It doesn’t help for political realists to insist (with frustration) that the world is a “dangerous place:” not only the victims, but the more disinterested parties, will challenge what the late Senator J.W. Fulbright termed “the arrogance of power.”

Credibility is, today, a fundamental tenet of any successful foreign policy endeavor – and this presupposes recognition of the need for transparency and respect for the basic traditions of a democratic polity. Corrupt tactics and the cynical choice of allies have undermined the credibility of America’s ethical commitments, the legitimacy of its national interests, and the ability to garner genuine support for American policy in the Middle East. Any intelligent person could see that the successful destruction of the Iraqi state would leave two other powers in the region, Syria and Iran, and that logic dictated a future assault on them in the name of spreading democracy. Circumstances intervened, however, and this kind of policy has (both pragmatically and ideologically) become a bit more difficult to pursue. Rousseau was surely correct in The Social Contract (1762) when he noted that “the strongest is never strong enough to be always the master, unless he transforms strength into right, and obedience into duty.” Perhaps the connection between human rights and political realism (or between ends and means) can never prove absolute: such a demand is probably utopian. But it is legitimate to ask of policymakers that they offer a plausible – if not absolute—connection between principles and interests in the policies they propose. That requires vigorous debate and questioning of the usually phony insistence upon national security in the deliberation process. When it comes to human rights and American foreign policy, indeed, there is no finessing the implications of political realism: democracy is what democracy does.


[1] This text is based on a speech originally given at a conference, “The Changing Middle East: Implications for US-Iran Relations,” that was sponsored by the American-Iranian Council and Georgetown University on June 7, 2011.

[2]Note the extended discussion in Stephen Eric Bronner, Reclaiming the Enlightenment: Toward a Politics of Radical Engagement (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).

[3] Note the extended discussion of the unintended future consequences of short term instrumental decisions – a simple example is the support originally extended by the United States to the Muhjadeen in Afghanistan against the Russians — in Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (New York: Holt, 2004).

[4] Note the chronology in The Iraq Papers edited by John Ehrenberg, Patrice McSherry, Jose R. Sanchez, and Caroleen Sayej  (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[5] See the essay on liberal supporters of the Iraqi war that I co-authored with John Kurt Jacobsen, “Dubya’s Fellow Travellers: Left Intellectuals and Mr. Bush’s War” in Stephen Eric Bronner, Blood in the Sand: Imperial Fantasies, Right-Wing Ambitions, and the Erosion of American Democracy (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2005), pgs. 102ff.

[6] Samantha Power, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide (New York: Harper, 2007).

[8]Note the hapless discussions over “What Just Happened?” and “Why No One Saw It Coming?” with respect to “The New Arab Revolt” in Foreign Affairs (May/June 2011) and F. Gregory Gause III, “Why Middle East Studies Missed the Arab Spring” in Foreign Affairs (July/August 2011). For an alternative approach, see Stephen Eric Bronner, “Rosa in Cairo” in Reader Supported New (February 8, 2011); www.rsnorg.org   

Stephen Eric Bronner is Distinguished Professor (PII) of Political Science and Director of Civic Diplomacy and Human Rights at the Institute for World Challenges: Rutgers University. Author of more than a dozen books, he is the Senior Editor of Logos: A Journal of Modern Society and Culture.


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

By Kurt Jacobsen: A Rambling Introduction

By Paul Hoover: The British Small Arms Company: A Motorcycle Memoir

By Andrey Gritsman: Stranger at Home: Poetic Sensibility across Cultures and Languages

By John Nichols: Epistles from the Roadside

By Leonard Quart: Revisiting in the Heat of the Night

By John Long: Got My Kicks on Route 66

By Max Vanzi: Traipsing after Sawada: An American Foreign Correspondent’s Memoir

By Phaedra Greenwood: Two for the Road

By Warren Leming: Looking for Woody

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By Thomas de Zengotita: Modernism Revisited: Artistic Works, Academic Disciplines, Divided Minds

By Vincent Czyz: Plato’s Gospel

By Joseph Lowndes: Looking Forward to the History of the Tea Party

By Stephen Eric Bronner: On Judging American Foreign Policy: Human Rights, Political Realism, and the Arrogance of Power

By John Clark: Bad I.O.U.: Badiou’s Fidelity to the Event

By Carmen Francesca Banciu: Pollen and Diamonds

By Aaron Leonard: Twilight Saga of the American Empire?

By Lawrence Davidson: Review of Basem Ra’ad, Hidden Histories: Palestine and the Eastern Mediterranean.

By John Ehrenberg: Tristram Hunt, Marx’s General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels

By Denise Poche Jetter: Steven Shapin, Never Pure: Historical Studies of Science as if it were Produced by People

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