America has long had a disconnect between ideals and reality when it comes to human rights. After all, the country was founded on the idea of the inalienable right to life, liberty and happiness, even as it held slaves and stole the land of its Native inhabitants in a genocidal rampage. There were Red scares, Jim Crow, deportations, internment and mass incarceration, some of it still happening today. And that's just what we did in our own country. Indeed, it's obvious that throughout American history, our elegant paeans to freedom and liberty and the rights of man were not universally applied.
Progress on human rights seems to come in fits and starts and is commonly denied to minority populations as long as possible. Still, hypocrisy being the proverbial tribute vice pays to virtue, there is value in having ideals even if you don't entirely live up to them. At least they remain alive and part of the dialogue. When a nation is the world's only superpower, it especially behooves its leaders to make the effort to promote and adhere to such ideals as much as possible, lest the rest of the world gets the wrong idea and decides it is a menace they need to oppose. This is just common sense.
Most people think Jimmy Carter was the first president to put human rights front and center in U.S. foreign policy. But that had actually been coming for some time, mostly from the Congress and at the behest of the public, which had been awakened by the Vietnam War to the downside of American power abroad. This included the ugly revelations about U.S. support for authoritarian right wing regimes around the world in the name of opposing Communism.
In large part, this new focus was a reaction to the realpolitik philosophy of Henry Kissinger, which saw concern for human rights as an impediment to effective foreign policy that was likely to damage necessary alliances. This was perhaps most vividly illustrated by Kissinger's support for Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean dictator and war criminal, who was seen as a useful ally in the anti-Communist cause, even though he indulged in the wanton torture and murder of his political opponents.
As early as 1974, in the wake of Richard Nixon's downfall, Congress was holding hearings and making demands that the U.S. put human rights at the center of its foreign policy. This was not just a moral consideration, although that was paramount. It was also a practical concern, since America's global credibility had been so damaged by the Vietnam debacle that it was no longer able to properly exert influence on its own behalf with soft power. Congress stepped into the foreign policy arena with a demand that the government raise the issue in international institutions and, more importantly, restrict aid to governments that consistently violated human rights.
The executive branch under Nixon and Gerald Ford were none too happy. The State Department forcefully defended governments accused of human rights violations, and Kissinger even quashed reports to Congress on human rights violations in allied countries, insisting they were counterproductive to national security. Congress responded by passing the Foreign Assistance Act, which requires the State Department to provide the reports. When he came into office in 1977, Carter simply followed Congress' lead and made human rights a central focus of U.S. foreign policy.
And to greater and lesser degrees, it remained there going forward. Whether the president was a "realist," an "internationalist," a "liberal interventionist," a "neoconservative" or some permutation thereof, promotion of human rights was seen as a part of American foreign policy. Of course, that has been used for cynical purposes and ignored when convenient; it rings especially hollow in light of our recent "preemptive" invasion, torture and drone wars in the Middle East. But the ideal remained intact even among the worst offenders in the Bush administration, which at least paid lip service to the concept as one of its rationales for its failed nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan.
When Donald Trump said he was going to make America great again, everyone had different ideas about what exactly he meant. But his bloviating about how much he loves torture and mass executions should have alerted everyone to the fact that human rights were not going to be central to his foreign policy.
Nonetheless, one might have expected that his secretary of state would at least be conversant with the concept. But apparently Rex Tillerson didn't have a clue. According to Politico, three months into the job he blithely announced that it was "really important that all of us understand the difference between policy and values like freedom, human dignity and the way people are treated." This caused a furor among foreign policy experts, since Tillerson was obviously completely unschooled in the subject.
Apparently, a deputy named Brian Hook, a former Bush administration official, wrote up a memo for Tillerson explaining how the U.S. looks at human rights. And guess what? After nearly half a century we're back to Henry Kissinger's foreign policy from the 1970s. According to Politico, which got a peek at the memo, Hook explained to the neophyte diplomat that "the U.S. should use human rights as a club against its adversaries, like Iran, China and North Korea, while giving a pass to repressive allies like the Philippines, Egypt and Saudi Arabia." As Tom Malinowski, former assistant secretary of state under Obama, told Politico, this "tells Tillerson that we should do exactly what Russian and Chinese propaganda says we do — use human rights as a weapon to beat up our adversaries while letting ourselves and our allies off the hook.”
It's certainly the case that Trump happily excuses repressive regimes, but he doesn't seem to differentiate between those that are allies and those that are adversaries. He just loves those strongmen. Likewise, he frequently insults close American allies who are not human rights abusers. So he didn't read this memo (or rather, nobody read it to him.)
Either way, whether it's Tillerson's crude dismissal of human rights and values, his deputy's cynical Kissinger-esque realpolitik or Trump's fatal attraction to tyrants and despots, it would appear that promotion of human rights is no longer an American ideal. It's just another norm tossed on the dumpster fire we call the Trump presidency.