Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Wisdom from George F Kennan

"This brings us to the questions of "human rights."  Let us first glance at the extent of our involvement in this cause.  The Department of State , as I understand it, in addition to harboring the Bureau of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs headed by an assistant secretary of state, now has a "human rights officer" attached to the normally already redundant staff of every American diplomatic mission anywhere.  One part of the duties of these particular officials is said to be  the preparation of an annual report on the human rights record, so called, of the host country.  The department, for its part, maintains in Washington a "human rights reports team", to read and ponder such reports and to prepare a consolidated report for congress.  It does all this, to be sure, not solely of its own volition;  these procedures are now, at  least in part, required by law.  But what is under consideration here is not the involvement of the Department of State alone but of our government as a whole in the question at issue.  And thus extravagantly do we, like a stern schoolmaster clothed in the mantle of perfect virtue, sit in judgments over all other governments, looking sharply down the nose of each of them to see whether its handling of its domestic affairs meets with our approval.

That these commitments constitute one more limitation on our freedom of action in foreign affairs - one more instance in which we have committed ourselves in advance to behave in a given way in a wide category of instances, none of which can be specifically foreseen - is beyond doubt.  And is this justified?
Let us recall that the manner in which regimes customarily treat their subjects, worldwide, is largely a matter of tradition, habit, and popular concepts of what is right and what is wrong.  All these are subject to change, to be sure, over long periods of time, but seldom, if the results are to be lasting, can the change be abrupt.

It is the habit of a great many regimes, across the surface of the globe, to deal harshly with those of their nationals who have opposed their positions of power, or who are suspected of doing so.  In most instances, their opponents, if the shoe were on  the other foot, would behave in much the same way.  The incentives to such behavior are never-ending, and unless the national traditions and political habits sternly rule them out, they will normally be yielded to.  The pressures of outside opinion may occasionally cause the respective regime to  go a bit easier for a time in this respect; but unless these pressures are supported by the inherited political culture of the place, and particularly by the existence and tradition  of democratic self-government, such gestures of moderation  are not apt to be lasting.
The pressure of outside opinion about human rights sustained oer long periods of time, can indeed produce beneficial changes in both attitudes and institutions.  The role of private opinion in this direction, when applied in support of gradual change, is important and should be welcomed.  Whether governments, and the U.S. government in particular, should be involved in exerting such pressures is more dubious.  In this respect, governments have to take the world pretty much as they find it.  Their task - at least, the task of the U. S. government, as I perceive it - is to conduct its own relations with other governments in a manner conducive to a minimum of bilateral friction and to the maximum of usefulness to world peace and stability.  This will be most effective if the sound old principle on noninterference in the other's domestic affairs is respected - if the lines of responsibility, in other words, are clearly recognized.  This includes the responsibility of each regime for the governing of its own people.  Each of them has, alone, the power to shape the situation in this respect.  It must be, from the standpoint of morality, the judge of its own behavior.  Outside pressure, particularly from another government, is seldom helpful, and may be counterproductive.

For a foreign government to exert such pressure, in circumstances impossible to foresee, for an indefinite time into the future, strikes me as in all respects a questionable procedure;  and I cannot but regret the lengths to which we have shown ourselves prepared to go, and the leadership we have even taken internationally in promoting, on the governmental level, the cause of "human rights."

The die is now cast.  Formal obligations have been entered into.  The practice has found sanction in American public opinion.  So be it.  But I would ask it to be noted that this is one more instance where indulgence of the desire to appear virtuous in our own eyes has placed limitations on the area in which we should have the flexibility to act usefully in more significant areas of international life."

George F. Kennan (Around the Cragged Hill, 1993, W W Norton & Co.)

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