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Biden’s human rights inheritance

President Joe Biden is committed to the pursuit of human rights abroad. We know this because this cause now runs through the arteries of the Democratic Party and has done since the time of President Jimmy Carter who was the first president in post World War 2 history to make it such pronounced priority.

Carter, a highly religious man who taught in his local Sunday school whenever he could get home, felt that God had created the US in part “to set an example for the rest of the world”. In practice it wasn’t so straightforward. As Hodding Carter the State Department’s spokesman at that time once observed, his human rights policy was “ambiguous, ambivalent and ambidextrous”. His wife, Patricia Derian, who was the assistant secretary for human rights, was often frustrated by the lack of support from her superiors.

Carter’s new policy was most effective in the Western hemisphere. After he was defeated for a second term he visited Argentina and was swamped by crowds who thanked him for helping undermine the military regime which had imprisoned and tortured a wide range of opposition activists. The Catholic Church in Argentina, then led by the present pope, was largely silent, unlike its counterparts in Chile and Brazil where there were also repressive military regimes. Thus the role that Carter played was an unprecedentedly successful, non-violent, intervention. It brought results. The regime was weakened and eventually toppled.  A similar impact was made in several other Latin American countries. Arms sales were cut off and a number of countries were economically squeezed. 

Nevertheless, as Martin Ennals, the secretary-general of Amnesty International warned me at the time, it would be impossible for the US government to sustain its commitment untainted. It was bound to become intertwined with other aspects of foreign policy and in doing so be devalued.  

On the positive side Carter did raise human rights to a new level of political potency. Certainly in Latin America, but also in Indonesia, India, Myanmar, East Timor and South Korea, it emboldened religious, labour and liberal groups to be more openly critical of their regimes. Carter told the South Korean military regime that he would pull out all US troops if they executed Kim Dae-jung, the opposition leader, who went on to become president.  More than this, Carter’s human rights crusade provided both then and today a yardstick against which the foreign policy of Western nations came to be judged, even when Carter partly turned his back on his earlier commitment.

One serious flaw was Carter’s obsession with defeating communism in the Soviet Union. He mislaid his sense of even-handedness. Even in his final speech at the Democratic Party Convention he singled out the USSR as a human rights pariah while giving no mention of the rest of the world. 

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to impose a Marxist regime it spurred Carter to orientate the US towards China. Carter, who had vowed during his campaign for the presidency he wouldn’t “ass-kiss” the Chinese, paid no heed to the jailing of Democracy Wall activists in 1979. Carter was intent on concluding the formal normalization of relations with China. Carter looked the other way when the important Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng was sentenced to fifteen years’ imprisonment. Yet at more or less the same time Carter was lambasting Moscow for sending Soviet dissident Anatol Scharansky to prison. 

Carter’s worst bit of dual thinking- you can call it hypocrisy- was his policy towards Cambodia. When the US withdrew from Vietnam, Cambodia under its villainous leader Pol Pot became not just a thorn in the flesh of Vietnam, it killed an estimated 1.7 million of its own people in a massive genocide- the so-called “Killing Fields”, the title of a superb movie. In 1978 Carter declared Cambodia “the worst violator of human rights in the world”. 

But Carter anxious not to cross China which he was wooing said little more. China was Pol Pot’s friend. “I encouraged the Chinese to support Pol Pot,” Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s national security advisor, told the New York Times. He was wedded to the old Henry Kissinger formula of “playing the China card” against the Soviet Union.

As Jonathan Alter has written in Foreign Policy magazine, “it got worse”. He explained: The US supported Pol Pot’s claim to the Cambodian seat in the United Nations. Pol Pot’s flag flew outside the UN building. All the European nations, except Sweden, joined the US in its recognition of the Pol Pot government. 

Many diplomatic and journalistic observers have argued that China would not have broken off its rapprochement with the US if Carter had decided not to go along with supporting the Pol Pot government. China had too much at stake with the US to allow a tail to wag the dog. 

Indeed when the Vietnamese finally toppled Pol Pot China stood by.

Carter’ legacy is mixed. His supporters say that his compromises were matched by his successes, particular in the USSR. Victor Havel, the dissident playwright who later became the president of the Czech Republic, said that not only did Carter inspire him in prison, he also undermined the “self-confidence” of the Soviet bloc. The self-confidence of Eastern Europe’s human rights organizations did grow. 

The former Soviet ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin, wrote in his memoires that Carter’s human rights policies “played a significant role” in the Soviet Union, loosening its grip at home and in Eastern Europe. Once liberalization was under way, Dobrynin concluded, it couldn’t be controlled. 

So in which direction should Biden go? At present his rhetoric is loaded against post-communist Moscow. Despite the success of Alexei Navalny in mobilizing street protests against Putin’s autocracy, polls show that only 5% of voters support him (but quite a bit more in Moscow and St Petersburg). The regime does dominate 80% of the media but around 20% is free, as is the internet (unlike China) and foreign broadcasts. The US effort under presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump to push Russia against the wall has been counterproductive. A majority of Russians don’t like such outside pressure, and that has little to do with the political colour of their government. That doesn’t mean that the US should be verbally quiet about what it sees as abuses in Russia, but then it should be prepared to accept Russian criticism of the human rights abuses at home that happened during the tenure of Trump.

Biden must tread carefully. The image of the US as an upholder of human rights is badly tarnished after Trump’s tenure and there are many faults to be remedied at home before other countries will take it as seriously as they used to. True, thanks to Carter’s convictions, human rights does run through the bloodstream of the Democratic Party. But before getting caught up in challenging and criticizing others Biden has to put his house in order.

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Jonathan Power

Jonathan Power for 17 years was a foreign affairs columnist of the International Herald Tribune, now the New York Times. He has written eight books on foreign affairs. His latest is "Conundrums of Humanity- the Big Foreign Policy Questions of the Day".

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