Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Policy: Short-Term Prospects

14 Virginia Journal of International Law 597 (1973-74)

Univ. of Wisconsin Legal Studies Research Paper No. 1366

14 Pages Posted: 5 Feb 2016

See all articles by Richard Bilder

Richard Bilder

University of Wisconsin Law School


It is difficult to conceive of the development of an effective international human rights system without the active participation of the United States. Consequently, to those involved in international human rights efforts, the future attitude of the U.S. towards international human rights efforts is of great concern. This article, developing a paper presented to the Canadian Council of International Law near the end of the Nixon administration in 1973, assesses, as of that time, the likelihood that human rights will play a significant role U.S. foreign policy decisions in the then immediate future and the considerations — pro and con — likely to affect such U.S. policy decisions.

The article first suggests that we can generalize about the role of human rights in U.S. — or any nation’s — foreign policy only with caution. Human rights considerations may play different or even inconsistent roles in different aspects of our foreign policy depending upon the particular circumstances, the total configuration of relevant interests and the personalities of the policy-making individuals involved. Moreover, there has been a continuing and historic tension and uneasy compromise and oscillation in U.S. foreign policy between a moral and humanitarian theme — a desire to do good in the world by spreading the blessings of the American way of live, democratic values and civil and political liberties — and a pragmatic and realpolitik approach — a hard-headed and practical recognition of the world’s harsh realities — and neither can be ignored if our policy is to be understood.

The article then discusses reasons why human rights considerations seem likely to play only a relatively limited role in U.S. foreign policy in the then immediate future. These include the fact that foreign policy-making officials must typically justify their actions in pragmatic terms, related to immediate and obvious national interests and their skepticism that efforts to promote the human rights of foreigners have much relevance to those pragmatic national interests; the history of then recent U.S. actions and decisions which appear to accord a low priority to human rights considerations, such as U.S. actions in Vietnam, support of foreign dictatorships, and our failure to ratify important U.N. human rights conventions; the limited trust of the U.S. in the efficacy of the United Nations and other international organization activities; and the absence of strong and widely supported public pressures for the U.S. to act affirmatively to promote human rights in other countries.

But the author also points out some countervailing factors which may suggest a less pessimistic view of the influence of human rights considerations in future U.S. foreign policy. These include the fact that some congressional and official actions and rhetoric indicate that U.S. foreign policy makers are not indifferent to moral and humanitarian concerns as well as a changing international and national political climate which appears increasingly to place a greater emphasis on moral and international human rights considerations.

The article concludes by predicting that international human rights considerations are unlikely to play a major role in U.S. foreign policy until government officials are persuaded that the pursuit of these goals serves major national interests. The author suggests, however, that the dichotomy between moral concerns and “selfish” national or pragmatic interests may not be as rigid as foreign policy officials may seem to believe. National pride, self-respect and moral purpose are meaningful elements of both national power and domestic tranquility. Moral compromises or “passing by” may have real costs in terms of the way both Americans and people in other countries view the U.S. and its role in the world. It may be worth some foreign policy risks to reassert historic American commitments to human worth and dignity.

Keywords: International Human Rights, International Law, Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Policy, U.S. Foreign Affairs, U.S. Foreign Policy

JEL Classification: K33

Suggested Citation

Bilder, Richard, Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Policy: Short-Term Prospects. 14 Virginia Journal of International Law 597 (1973-74), Univ. of Wisconsin Legal Studies Research Paper No. 1366, Available at SSRN:

Richard Bilder (Contact Author)

University of Wisconsin Law School ( email )

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