Is America Pushing Human Rights to the Side?

Matthew Duss, a foreign-policy advisor to Sen. Bernie Sanders, appraises the Biden administration’s foreign policy.

By , the editor in chief of Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks about project labor agreements at Iron Workers Local 5 in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, on Feb. 4.
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks about project labor agreements at Iron Workers Local 5 in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, on Feb. 4.
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks about project labor agreements at Iron Workers Local 5 in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, on Feb. 4. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Perhaps because American politics is so polarized, the critiques of the Biden administration that get the most attention come from the right. But it’s also important to engage with perspectives to the left of the White House, especially as the United States gears up for its midterm elections this fall.

Matthew Duss has served as a foreign-policy advisor to Sen. Bernie Sanders since 2017. Sanders has twice run for president, including in the 2020 election cycle when Joe Biden edged him out to become the nominee of the Democratic Party.

Although Duss criticizes the Biden administration’s foreign policy on several fronts—its global vaccination efforts and its approach to human rights, for example—he is, in fact, broadly supportive of how Washington has handled Russia’s war in Ukraine so far. I sat down with Duss for a wide-ranging interview on Monday, June 20, for FP Live, the magazine’s platform for live journalism. FP subscribers can watch the full interview here. What follows is a condensed and lightly edited transcript of our discussion.

Perhaps because American politics is so polarized, the critiques of the Biden administration that get the most attention come from the right. But it’s also important to engage with perspectives to the left of the White House, especially as the United States gears up for its midterm elections this fall.

Matthew Duss has served as a foreign-policy advisor to Sen. Bernie Sanders since 2017. Sanders has twice run for president, including in the 2020 election cycle when Joe Biden edged him out to become the nominee of the Democratic Party.

Although Duss criticizes the Biden administration’s foreign policy on several fronts—its global vaccination efforts and its approach to human rights, for example—he is, in fact, broadly supportive of how Washington has handled Russia’s war in Ukraine so far. I sat down with Duss for a wide-ranging interview on Monday, June 20, for FP Live, the magazine’s platform for live journalism. FP subscribers can watch the full interview here. What follows is a condensed and lightly edited transcript of our discussion.

Foreign Policy: You’ve been fairly critical of the Biden administration’s foreign policy in the past, but you’ve actually applauded the White House for its restraint and care on how it’s handled the war in Ukraine. Would you then call this the administration’s main foreign-policy success so far?

Matthew Duss: I don’t know if I would call it that. But you are right. All things considered, they have been managing a very tough and dangerous situation in Ukraine—but potentially even more dangerous given the fact that Russia is a nuclear armed state. They have been managing this fairly well by upholding a set of very important international principles, particularly relating to the opposition to the invasion by one state against another while, at the same time, making clear that there is a ceiling on the level of support and intervention the United States is willing to participate in. So, given the various, obvious possibilities here for it to escalate pretty dangerously, I do think they’ve done a pretty good job marshaling cooperation among allies, particularly European allies, working as much as possible with regard to the U.N. and to forge and then help mobilize a consensus position internationally as much as possible.

FP: One of the guiding principles for the Biden administration’s foreign policy has been to align democracies against autocracies around the world. Do you think the world’s response to the Ukraine crisis shows that this black-and-white framing isn’t quite working?

MD: I think the tension—or the outright hypocrisy—becomes so stark when it’s being presented in these terms. The effort should be to try to diminish those tensions as much as possible but also speak with some more nuance about the challenges we actually face and the policies we’re pursuing to address them.

I think the most obvious example would be the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia and with the United Arab Emirates. This kind of warming of relations—the rapprochement with [Saudi Crown Prince] Mohammed bin Salman, which is ongoing right now—is a perfect example of the kind of thing that really creates justified skepticism and, frankly, disbelief when the United States goes out there and presents this as a struggle between democracy and autocracy because we are working with two of the worst autocracies in the Middle East.

FP: What would you do differently here?

MD: There are other steps the United States could take if the goal is to bring more oil online. I’m talking here about Iran and Venezuela. Again, these are also repressive governments. But there’s an Iran deal that could be had. My understanding is that we may still get back into the [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action], even though Biden was unwilling to delist the [Islamic] Revolutionary Guards Corps. But I do think it’s worth noting that was the issue on which the Iranians insisted and we may very well have been already back into the deal and starting to unwind these sanctions and getting Iranian oil back online right now. And the United States hasn’t been willing to do that. The president, himself, apparently was opposed to that condition. And the same with Venezuela. No one should defend the Maduro regime. But there’s a very intense set of sanctions we’ve had on Venezuela for a long time. I don’t think anyone can seriously argue they produced anything like a good policy outcome. These kinds of heavy sectoral sanctions often have a very bad record producing good outcomes. There are steps that could be taken with both of these countries if we really wanted to bring oil back online. But that would require confronting some very conservative and very influential political lobbies in the United States—advocacy organizations and constituencies—which matter.

FP: Is it your sense, then, that the Biden administration is struggling to pursue a principled foreign policy? It often speaks of human rights as well, but these messages seem to be getting a bit muddled with other priorities, such as a declared “foreign policy for the middle class.”

MD: I think that’s right. I think the president campaigned in a way that many progressives like myself were encouraged by. He highlighted human rights. He said that under his administration human rights would be back on the foreign-policy agenda. Those are things that are important to progressives. They’re important to a lot of Americans.

But beyond the rhetorical, at least as I see it, they have struggled to really actualize that in their policy. It’s understandable they’ve been confronted with crises literally since the moment that they took office. But I think that’s true of a lot of administrations.

FP: What kind of impact do you think domestic politics will have on the ability of the Biden administration to support Ukraine?

MD: As the war goes on, it becomes less newsy. I think there’s still pretty strong support for Ukraine’s right to defend itself, but there’s a large plurality that says we need to find ways to end this sooner rather than later. There’s a smaller number that believes we should just continue supporting this until Russia is defeated. I would hope that the Biden administration will lean forward on this a bit more.

FP: Explain that.

MD: Well, thus far, the rhetoric has been, “We’re not pushing the Ukrainians.” We are letting them take the lead. And I understand that it’s the Ukrainians who have been invaded. It’s their country they are defending. At the same time, the United States and our European allies are providing a considerable amount of support to Ukraine. That doesn’t mean that we get to be in charge, but it does mean that we have a stake—and a frankly reasonable expectation of influence on the outcome.

FP: How worried should we be about the alliance between Russia and China? There’s a school of thought that these two countries together expand the nature of their individual threats to America when combined. But there’s another school of thought that would suggest that [Chinese President] Xi Jinping isn’t thrilled with how the war in Ukraine has played out. Where do you stand?

MD: I think, in general, it’s a good goal for any country’s foreign policy to try to segregate our adversaries rather than to unify them. I can’t imagine that Xi Jinping is looking at what Russia has done in Ukraine and been impressed. He’s watched [Russian President Vladimir] Putin undertake a war that was intended to showcase Russian power and has showcased precisely the opposite. It showcased the limits of Russian power. At the same time, it’s also given China potentially much, much more influence over Russia to help backstop some of the economic costs. I would not go this far, but one of my colleagues says Russia is on the path to becoming a vassal state of China. I think it has probably given Xi a bit more caution about what could be waiting should they conceive of some other precipitous action—whether on Taiwan or elsewhere—to see how quickly the United States and its allies, including its Asian allies, could move in response. But I think the goal here should be to avoid that situation and make clear that that is not something we’re seeking.

FP: The Biden administration has sometimes been criticized for rhetoric that doesn’t always add up. Do you agree?

MD: I think rhetoric has been a problem in the sense that it has not been followed with policy. You know, we can come back to the Saudi Arabia visit, which is, I think, the most glaring example. It’s important for the United States to stand up for human rights but [recognize] that there are going to be areas and governments that we work with on issues of shared concern that do not meet those standards. I think the question is how deep are those relationships, and how much are we investing in those? Are we continuing to press on human rights or are we just pushing human rights to the side?

Biden’s Saudi visit is sometimes framed as a choice for realism over idealism: “We are choosing our interests over our values.” And I just disagree with that. I do not think it is realistic to invest in a long-term relationship with a mercurial, corrupt, reckless leader. I think we have learned this lesson over and over. We can run down the list of dictators and tyrants the United States has depended on to deliver particular goods, whether it’s security or economic, “stability,” and the various times where that has gone really bad. Let’s also remember: We saw Vladimir Putin as a partner in the war on terror when the war on terror was the defining issue of America’s global approach. And that has not worked out, obviously.

I don’t want to pretend that these are easy questions. But I do think we should challenge this claim that what is being done here just makes sense from a purely realist standpoint. I do not think it’s realistic to yoke U.S. policy to figures like Mohammed bin Salman.

FP: If there’s one thing you could change with Biden’s foreign policy, what would that be?

MD: I would spend a lot more energy pushing for global vaccinations, particularly pushing for the TRIPS [or Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights] waiver at the World Trade Organization. Over a year ago, President Biden and his administration’s trade representative, Katherine Tai, announced that the administration would be supporting this waiver. But we have very little to show for it. If we really want to show the world that America is back, aggressively pushing for this waiver and for global vaccine access across the board is one of the most important ways to do it.

Almost 3 billion people in the world, mostly in the poorest countries in the world, have yet to even receive their first dose of [the COVID-19] vaccine. Pushing for this is something very important for the United States. It’s actually in our own security interests to get this done because the quicker we can get more people vaccinated, the less likely we are to deal with variants that develop when people are unvaccinated.

Ravi Agrawal is the editor in chief of Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RaviReports

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