How the United States Learned to Love Human Rights

The United States’ human rights story started less than 50 years ago with the extraordinary efforts of one president—and could end this November with the re-election of another.

By , a political columnist and documentary filmmaker. He has written several books, including His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter arrive for the Inauguration of Donald Trump at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20, 2017.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter arrive for the Inauguration of Donald Trump at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20, 2017.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter arrive for the Inauguration of Donald Trump at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20, 2017. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. President Donald Trump's cozy relations with authoritarian leaders are just the most publicized part of a deeper change in U.S. foreign policy he initiated. During his administration, the United States has fully retreated from the emphasis on human rights that has characterized administrations of both parties for more than 40 years.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s cozy relations with authoritarian leaders are just the most publicized part of a deeper change in U.S. foreign policy he initiated. During his administration, the United States has fully retreated from the emphasis on human rights that has characterized administrations of both parties for more than 40 years.

Human rights are now on the ballot this November. If former Vice President Joe Biden is elected president, he will move the United States back to its traditional policy. But it’s worth considering how that policy became a U.S. tradition in the first place. The history of universal human rights in U.S. diplomacy is much shorter than most Americans might think—and it largely owes its existence to one man.

This article is adapted from Jonathan Alter’s new book His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life.
This article is adapted from Jonathan Alter’s new book His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life.

This article is adapted from Jonathan Alter’s new book His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life.

One day in the early 1980s, not long after he lost the presidency to Ronald Reagan, a slightly depressed (and nearly broke) Jimmy Carter was strolling through the campus of Emory University in Atlanta. He was introduced to Karl Deutsch, a renowned political scientist visiting from Harvard. Deutsch told Carter that a thousand years from now, only a handful of U.S. presidencies would be remembered, but that his would be among them because of his focus on human rights. Carter’s eyes welled with tears.

Carter often argued that the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights—drafted by a group of diplomats at the United Nations led by Eleanor Roosevelt—was akin to the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution in its importance. He believed that the values in it were descended from the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus taught people how they should treat one another.

Bringing human rights into the center of U.S. policymaking wasn’t easy. Powerful members of the foreign-policy establishment had long claimed that letting Wilsonian idealism interfere with a tough-minded realpolitik approach was soft and naive, especially during the Cold War. They argued that the “national interest” required being critical of communists who abused human rights but indulgent toward authoritarians who did the same.

Carter understood that this double standard drained U.S. foreign policy of its moral authority. Strong, secure presidents representing strong, secure superpowers take on bullies, even if they are allies; weak, insecure presidents from countries in retreat give them a pass in order to pursue poorly defined interests. Carter was strong and secure in his role, even if he didn’t always look that way. The inner strength came from religious and moral conviction. Carter felt that God had created the United States in part “to set an example for the rest of the world” and that the United States was the “first nation to dedicate itself clearly to basic moral and philosophical principles.” In that sense, his new policy was an organic outgrowth of the country’s founding ideals and of his own eagerness to consecrate them.

The beauty of Carter’s reintroduction of human rights into the foreign-policy debate was that it transformed the concept from a Cold War weapon (the United States highlighted repression in Eastern Europe; the Soviet Union highlighted the Jim Crow South) into what Carter called “a beacon of light for all mankind.” It injected a growing international movement with energy and purpose, globalized the U.S. civil rights struggle, and set a new moral benchmark for governments and civil society to use in assessing the performance of leaders—a benchmark that the U.S. government is now itself failing to meet.

Carter was a mediocre communicator who often flubbed his applause lines; the columnist Murray Kempton described his television self as “frozen indifference.” But there was nothing indifferent in his dogged efforts to put “human rights” into the international vocabulary. Among simple ways of framing public policy, only President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society entered the language with the same permanence, and their policies were limited to the United States.

Carter gingerly raised human rights from time to time on the campaign trail in 1976. It was a political winner, uniting liberals critical of then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s support for dictators, voters who belonged to ethnic groups affected by Soviet control of nations behind the Iron Curtain, Christians worried about religious persecution, and Jews concerned about dissidents unable to leave the Soviet Union. Carter announced his intentions more emphatically in his inaugural address with the line that “our commitment to human rights must be absolute,” although most sophisticated listeners knew that the world was much too messy for that.

The president’s new policy was selective and inconsistent from the start, especially as applied to strategically important allies. Vital interests took priority over moral ones, most fatefully in the case of Iran, where Carter toasted the shah and raised the abuses of his secret police only in their private meetings. When the shah was driven from power in 1979 by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Carter’s support for the monarch led to the seizure of U.S. hostages in Tehran.

But for all the built-in hypocrisy, the message was unmistakable: For the first time, a U.S. president went from merely promoting U.S. ideals to offering specific critiques of specific countries with specific penalties attached. Carter aimed to condition military and economic aid— and even World Bank and International Monetary Fund loans—on the progress nations made toward ending extralegal killings, detention without trial, censorship, and other abuses. And he would keep the pressure on both communist and noncommunist regimes.

The first test of Carter’s human rights policy came within 24 hours of his taking office. On the day after his inauguration, Jan. 21, 1977, Andrei Sakharov, an esteemed Russian physicist who had won the Nobel Peace Prize two years earlier for his work as a human rights activist, wrote to Carter. Sakharov named political prisoners in the Soviet Union and asked the new president to make good on his promises to improve human rights.

Two weeks later, Carter informed Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin in a private meeting that he would hold the Soviets to the commitments to human rights made in the 1975 Helsinki Accords and that he intended to speak out about Sakharov, whose Moscow apartment had recently been ransacked. (This was a break from the approach of former President Gerald Ford, who in 1975 was scheduled to meet with famed novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a former Soviet political prisoner, but canceled at the last minute out of fear of jeopardizing détente.) Breaking protocol, he sent Sakharov a forthright letter that the dissident held aloft for photographers in Moscow so that they could see Carter’s signature at the bottom. This enraged the Kremlin but had profound consequences. As Robert Gates, who served as secretary of defense during the administrations of President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama, wrote later, “Whether isolated and little-known Soviet dissident or world-famous Soviet scientist, Carter’s policy encouraged them to press on.”

Several weeks later, the young Jewish dissident who had helped Sakharov translate his letter into English, Anatoly (later Natan) Sharansky, was arrested in Moscow on trumped-up charges of treason. Carter protested to Dobrynin and, that fall, to Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, both of whom responded with stony indifference. Gromyko told Carter after the opening of the U.N. General Assembly that Sharansky was a “microscopic dot of no importance to anyone.” When Sharansky went on trial in Moscow, Carter—again breaking protocol—called the charges that he was an American spy “patently false.”

In every meeting with a Soviet official for the rest of his time in office, Carter brought up Sharansky. And on every visit to a closed society, Carter carried the bully pulpit with him, inspiring local populations by giving a speech or holding a live televised news conference that could not be censored, an important tradition followed by his successors.

In 1979 Carter and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev completed what Carter described as a “highly emotional” prisoner swap, trading two Soviet spies being held in the United States for five dissidents in the Soviet Union, including three Jewish refuseniks and Georgi Vins, a Russian Baptist pastor jailed in 1974 for conducting an underground ministry in the Soviet Union. A mere four days after he was transported from prison in a Siberian cattle car, Vins joined the president in Washington for church. Sitting next to first lady Rosalynn Carter in the pew, he pulled off his shoe, lifted the inner sole, and showed her a small, wrinkled photograph of Jimmy Carter he had kept in prison.

At the same time, Carter championed a different way of thinking about the country’s longtime adversaries. In an important speech at Notre Dame University, he declared the nation “now free of that inordinate fear of communism” that “led us to embrace any dictator who joined us in that fear.” Carter was venturing where no postwar U.S. president had dared go before: “For too many years, we’ve been willing to adopt the flawed and erroneous principles and tactics of our adversaries, sometimes abandoning our own values for theirs,” he said, citing the decision to fight in Vietnam. “We’ve fought fire with fire, never thinking that fire is better quenched with water.” Freedom would be that potent dousing force. Authoritarians could no longer justify their repression by claiming that they were just fighting communism.

In another bracing speech in 1977, Carter told the United Nations that nations would have to relinquish certain traditional ideas of sovereignty: “No member of the United Nations can claim that mistreatment of its citizens is solely its own business.” His larger argument to the global community was that freedom could actually enhance security by winning governments the sincere support of their people. Under this powerful new worldview, human rights were not just compatible with national interests; they advanced them.

Inside the U.S. government, Carter institutionalized the concept of human rights by founding a new State Department Bureau of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, which issued “country reports” tracking the behavior of abusive governments. These influential reports helped drive policy decisions. To run the bureau, Carter and Vance established a new position, assistant secretary for human rights, and gave the job to Patricia Derian, an activist of unusual vision and determination who had moved to Mississippi in 1959 to work for civil rights. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance empowered Derian (even putting her just down the hall from him on the seventh floor), but she clashed with the department’s other assistant secretaries, who paid lip service to human rights but gave priority to shopworn strategic objectives and arms sales abroad. They didn’t appreciate an outspoken and refreshingly undiplomatic woman mucking around in their pinstriped world.

Derian was so single-minded in her devotion to human rights that U.S. ambassadors winced when they learned she was traveling to their region. Upon arrival in a dictatorship, she never unpacked because she wasn’t sure how quickly the regime might force her to leave. Lawrence Eagleburger, a future secretary of state in the Reagan administration, serving as ambassador to Yugoslavia, made a point of leaving Belgrade every time Derian came to town to tongue-lash Marshal Tito’s communist government, but he later admitted he was wrong in his assessment of Derian and the policy. “I never thought I’d concede this,” Eagleburger said. “A lot of people in a lot of different countries are better off because Jimmy Carter made an issue of it.”

Back in Washington, the president sometimes invited Derian to the Oval Office for a firsthand report. Before certain overseas trips, Carter would offer instructions on what to ask for. Derian would also, as Carter remembered, “add her own feelings” in meetings with heads of state. He didn’t mind. Carter’s human rights policy was “ambiguous, ambivalent, and ambidextrous,” as Hodding Carter (no relation), Derian’s husband and the State Department spokesman, described it. His wife was often frustrated by the lack of support in the State Department and White House. But the policy was historic nonetheless. Roberta Cohen, who worked closely with Derian, credited Carter with “planting the seeds for a change of thinking in the world—seeds that saved not just lives but ideas, and ideas matter.”

The new policy was most consistent and effective in the Western Hemisphere, where the United States held more sway than elsewhere. By convincing the Senate to ratify the Panama Canal treaties—a great accomplishment won against daunting odds—Carter engendered enormous goodwill throughout Latin America. When a collection of dictators came to Washington for the signing, Carter extracted concessions on human rights from all of them. He also signaled to dictators that the old days of exporting their raw materials to the United States in exchange for a blind eye to their abuses of power were over. This came as a shock to governments that had fought shoulder to shoulder with the United States against communism and terrorism.

Argentina was especially challenging. In 1976 the military government launched a vicious “dirty war” against suspected leftist terrorists, secretly backed by Kissinger. By the time Carter took office, an estimated 15,000 people had “disappeared.” One publisher, Jacobo Timerman, was imprisoned and tortured in 1977 after publicizing the disappearances. Timerman credited Derian with saving his life, and resourceful U.S. diplomats in Argentina saved hundreds more.

For all of the successes of the new policy, the Cold War kept getting in the way. In Indonesia, the Suharto regime was so anti-communist and friendly to the United States that Carter was slow to denounce the butchering of left-wing separatists in the province of East Timor, where the death toll from violence and starvation reached 150,000. (He finally joined efforts to free 50,000 political prisoners.) The Philippines, a critical strategic ally in the Pacific facing a communist insurgency in its outer islands, offered another example of the clash between “power and principle” (a term which became the title of National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski’s memoirs). Richard Holbrooke, the talented, egotistical diplomat driving policy in the region, argued that if the Carter administration pushed out longtime president Ferdinand Marcos and the Philippines fell to a Marxist regime, the fallout would be disastrous not just for human rights but also for the future of the Democratic Party.

Carter agreed, though this pragmatism didn’t stop him from decrying in his diary the “weak-kneed approach” of those in Washington who would be willing to drop the topic of human rights altogether in order “to appease dictators.” And he so disliked dealing with Marcos and his wife, Imelda, that he fobbed them off on Vice President Walter Mondale at every opportunity.

In South Korea, Carter threatened to pull all U.S. troops if the government executed Kim Dae-jung, a human rights activist and future Nobel Peace Prize winner wrongly accused of being a communist. The South Korean regime didn’t want to give Carter the satisfaction of releasing Kim on his watch, so it wasn’t until the Reagan administration that he was freed. But Kim knew who had saved him. When he was elected president of South Korea in 1998, he invited Derian to his swearing-in and told her that he wouldn’t be alive without the efforts of the Carter administration.

The worst human rights violation to occur in Asia during Carter’s term was the genocide in Cambodia. From 1975 to 1979, Cambodian leader Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge killed an estimated 1.7 million people, about one-fifth of the population. In 1978 Carter declared Cambodia “the worst violator of human rights in the world,” and he joined international condemnation of the regime, though he later admitted, “I should have denounced them more forcefully.” While direct military intervention was out of the question, what Carter did next was out of character.

In late 1978, Vietnam (which was backed by the Soviet Union) invaded Cambodia (which was backed by China) and removed the murderous Khmer Rouge. This should have been welcome news for the president, even if he didn’t yet know the full extent of the Cambodian genocide. But Carter faced a political and moral dilemma. He knew that accepting Vietnam’s attack on its neighbor would validate aggression and complicate efforts to normalize relations with China. To bond with Beijing, he would have to criticize Hanoi. This left Carter once again favoring geostrategic considerations over moral ones. Only years later did it become clear just how entangled the United States had been in the continuation of the Khmer Rouge. “I encouraged the Chinese to support Pol Pot,” Brzezinski told the New York Times in 1998. While he said he considered the Khmer Rouge “an abomination,” the national security advisor remained wedded to the old Kissinger formula of “playing the China card” against the Soviet Union.

It got worse. With U.S.-Soviet tensions growing sharply in 1980, the United States voted in the United Nations to seat the remnants of Pol Pot’s government-in-exile instead of the new Cambodian leaders, who may have been the puppets of Vietnam (and thus the Soviet Union) but at least weren’t genocidal maniacs. Carter’s explanation—that he was siding in the United Nations with China, Australia, and Western Europe against the Soviet Union, Vietnam, and Cuba—was practical but unpersuasive even in parts of his own State Department. Would China have really reversed course and broken its new diplomatic relations with the United States if the United States voted against seating the Khmer Rouge in the United Nations? Not likely. That U.S. vote—described by Vance in his memoirs as “extremely distasteful” but necessary to maintain alliances and show respect for the exiled Cambodian prince, Norodom Sihanouk—was a measure of Cold War thinking in that era. Too often, Carter, despite his best intentions, allowed a narrow and often mistaken definition of “the national interest” to prevail.

But Carter’s emphasis on human rights proved surprisingly durable. Even after Reagan’s first secretary of state, Alexander Haig, said human rights would take a “backseat” to fighting terrorism, neither he nor other Reagan-era policymakers fully abandoned the Carter policy. Many of these policymakers (including Elliott Abrams, Reagan’s hawkish assistant secretary of state for human rights) reappeared in important positions in the administration of George W. Bush, who made the expansion of democratic values central to his foreign policy.

The seeds that Carter planted slowly bore fruit. By 1981, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, and Uruguay were already moving away from dictatorships. Argentina returned to democracy in 1983; the new president, Raúl Alfonsín, described himself as a “Carterite” and said the United States’ human rights policy had saved thousands of lives. Carter’s legacy contributed to democracy building in Chile, Ecuador, Colombia, Costa Rica, and even Paraguay. In the 1970s, only one or two Latin American nations were democracies; by the early 2000s, only one or two were not.

Many historians of the Cold War stress the importance of “soft power”: nonmilitary cultural factors that cause catalytic change inside closed societies. Carter was an early believer that Western music could help hollow out the Soviet system. In 1977 the White House helped the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band become the first rock-and-roll band to play on Russian soil, part of an infusion of Western values that Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev later said “taught the young there was another life.” Dobrynin, who served as the Soviet ambassador in Washington through five presidencies, conceded in his memoirs 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.

Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright who in 1993 became president of the Czech Republic, put it in psychological terms. He argued that Carter’s policy not only inspired him in prison, it also undermined “the self-confidence” of the Soviet bloc, which imperiled the strength and legitimacy of the state. Meanwhile, the self-confidence of Eastern Europe’s human rights organizations grew. A new global movement was taking shape, as authoritarian regimes on both the right and the left bent to the democratic revolution sweeping the globe in the 1980s and 1990s.

Dissidents during these decades no longer felt so alone when the prison door clanged shut. More important, as former President Barack Obama told me recently, the concept of human rights became permanently encoded in the global conversation: “He introduced an explicit language around human rights and what previously had been an afterthought in foreign policy.” Obama saw Carter as an important prod for his successors, who learned from him that “it wasn’t enough to talk about America as being a beacon for freedom as JFK or Ronald Reagan did, but that it had to mean something.”

Trump has abandoned the human rights policies of his predecessors. He supports Chinese President Xi Jinping’s abuse of dissidents, expresses admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and writes love letters to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, among other signs of his total disregard for human rights. He has kept the post of assistant secretary of state for human rights vacant for four years. (His one nominee was forced to withdraw when he was connected to the George W. Bush administration’s torture program.) If he is reelected, Trump will extinguish the last embers of a policy that, starting in 1977, had helped spread freedom and democracy around the world.

By contrast, within days of taking office, former Vice President Joe Biden and his choice for secretary of state would revive the human rights policy begun under Carter and move to stem the authoritarian tide. Voters in November have a clear choice about whether they believe in the global projection of what had, until recently, been seen as bedrock U.S. values.

Jonathan Alter is a political columnist and documentary filmmaker. He has written several books, including His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life.

More from Foreign Policy

Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.
Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.

At Long Last, the Foreign Service Gets the Netflix Treatment

Keri Russell gets Drexel furniture but no Senate confirmation hearing.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.

How Macron Is Blocking EU Strategy on Russia and China

As a strategic consensus emerges in Europe, France is in the way.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.
Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.

What the Bush-Obama China Memos Reveal

Newly declassified documents contain important lessons for U.S. China policy.

A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.
A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.

Russia’s Boom Business Goes Bust

Moscow’s arms exports have fallen to levels not seen since the Soviet Union’s collapse.