Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Policy

Author James Peck discusses how the U.S. government co-opted human rights.


It comes as little surprise to historian and foreign policy analyst James Peck that the U.S. government this month launched a new website,, working in conjunction with human rights organizations, that details the issue around the world. His new book, illusionsIdeal Illusions: How the U.S. Government Co-opted Human Rights, details the fascinating story of how the federal government both created and co-opted the movement. Peck recently chatted with U.S. News about the origins of human rights as an issue and its future. Excerpts:

Explain your contention that there are two schools of human rights thought.

The one stream of human rights is the more popular American one. It emphasizes political rights and individual rights, it is relatively moderate and incrementalist, it incorporates individual human needs into a rights-based legalism. There are many positive things in this: You strip away the restrictions of class or lack of opportunity so you can have things like more women's rights, gay rights, civil rights. The emergence of these things as rights came at the same time as the enormous increases in inequities in the United States over the past four decades. The other stream of human rights thinking, which is emerging in the countries in the Southern Hemisphere and Mideast, deals more with inequality, the division of resources, questions of independence, struggles for restructuring the systems of wealth and power, in ways that are sometimes opposed to those ideas of individual rights and freedoms. [See a slide show of 15 major post-Cold War uprisings.]

Where are the headwaters of those streams?

When the human rights movement emerged in the 1970s, it left many of the peace movement's prevailing themes behind. At the same time, the language of human rights [came] to be used by the federal government. National security people seized upon it as a kind of new idealism that was needed to replace a kind of anticommunism that had been discredited by the Vietnam War, by the free-fire zones, coverups, assassinations.

Could human rights have emerged at another time?

Human rights emerged in the U.S. at a certain point in time, after the civil rights movement, and it couldn't really have emerged before that. Just as it was the decolonization movement that swept through Asia and Africa that led to the human rights movement picking up in Europe.

Did Washington shape the early human rights movement?

Human rights would not have emerged as the preeminent language of a lot of social critique were it not pushed by, driven by, and formulated through the U.S. government. That's a controversial thesis but fundamentally, what I try to show in the book, is that the U.S. government has been far ahead of the human rights movement. A lot of the key issues that have emerged in the human rights world, which the human rights community likes to think that they pushed on, are ones where Washington has gotten there first. [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]

For instance?

The human rights community likes to think that it is a leader in pushing for the rights of noncombatants, for example. But if you look at the earliest advocates for the rights of noncombatants, it was Jeane Kirkpatrick [the fiercely anticommunist Reagan-era ambassador to the United Nations]. It was an odd way for a national security manager to talk, but essentially what they were saying was, "Yes, our people are doing some bad things in South America, but if you look at what the other side is doing, so are they." That line of argument takes away the romantic nature of many movements, and denies that there is justice in struggle.

What explains the right-wing embrace of human rights?

Human rights has . . . been supported by among the most right-wing elements of the national security bureaucracy because conservatives can speak about the people's right to have democracy but not if it means using violence, not if it means redistributing wealth, and only if it confines itself to the market system. You can create a conception of human rights in one stream, which filters out some of the other stream.