Elizabeth Shackelford: Jimmy Carter was right about human rights

From the commentary: If human rights records had the clout that Carter intended, reports like these would have shaped our foreign policy instead, ensuring that those who foster injustice and violence would not remain beneficiaries of U.S. support.

President Jimmy Carter announces his friend Bert Lance's resignation, director of the Office of Management and the Budget, during a press conference in Washington D.C. on Sept. 21, 1977. (Consolidated News Pictures/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)
(Consolidated News Pictures/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)<br/><br/><br/>

When I first joined the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service, I was optimistic about the positive role the United States played in the world. By the time I left not quite a decade later, I was haunted by how dangerous our shortsighted foreign policy can be.

More Commentary:
From the commentary: If anchorman Ron DeSantis has his way, freedom (of speech) loses. Liberty loses. And that's not a victory for anyone.
From the commentary: Mexico is not our enemy. It's a friend, ally, trading partner and good neighbor. In fact, Americans don't realize how lucky we are that — unlike many other countries around the globe — we don't have a hostile country on our border.
From the commentary: If Stormy Daniels were all he had to worry about, Donald Trump would be in better shape than he is. Stay tuned.

What worried me most was how casual the U.S. government was about arming, training, and resourcing dictators, tyrants and local thugs all over the world. We typically justified this in the name of stability or maintaining influence, but pursued it with shockingly little accountability for the negative consequences.

I didn’t understand how we could reconcile the human rights values we claimed to champion with the human rights offenders we championed too. After I walked away from my career, I wanted to know more.


I was a history major with a law degree. I hadn’t studied international relations, so on-the-job training was my foreign affairs education. Freed up from the daily rigor of diplomatic work on the front lines, I pored through books and academic articles on what drives what we do around the world.

I was shocked to learn that human rights as an element of U.S. foreign policy was barely older than I was.

President Jimmy Carter first formalized human rights in our foreign policy in 1977. Prior to that, our government didn’t even pretend to factor it in. Though Carter’s foreign policy will be remembered more for the disasters of the Iran hostage situation and oil crisis, it was his approach to human rights that left a truly lasting mark.

I’ve thought a lot about that legacy since President Carter entered hospice care. I’ve also thought about how much better off we would be if that legacy had gained more traction.

“Our American values are not luxuries but necessities,” he said in his 1981 farewell address. “Our common vision of a free and just society is our greatest source of cohesion at home and strength abroad.”

President Carter believed it was not only our duty to live up to these principles at home and overseas but that it was good policy too, serving our own interests. He understood that providing political, economic and military support to governments that abused their people might stabilize specific regimes in the short term but would ultimately foster insurgencies and violence, creating bad outcomes in the long run. Rather than creating reliable security or trade partners, it would embolden authoritarian regimes to act ever worse.

Carter sought to institutionalize human rights within our foreign policy decision-making structures, so that it would not only inform our foreign activities but constrain them as well.

Specifically, his administration implemented policies to link U.S. government decisions over foreign assistance to the human rights records of target countries. He established a Bureau of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs at the State Department, headed by an assistant secretary. The bureau today prepares human rights reports annually for every country to help inform our foreign policy decisions and human rights messaging to the world.


This marked a real shift. Throughout the Cold War, the U.S. government hadn’t hesitated to partner with bad actors as long as they sided with us against the Soviet Union. Under the national security advisement of Henry Kissinger, we not only turned a blind eye to allies’ violent abuses, but at times even encouraged them.

Carter offered a foreign policy that looked less awful at home and to the outside world, and Americans were ready for that change.

But that framework only took us so far. When Carter was soundly defeated and Ronald Reagan took the helm, he made quick work of undermining the institutional role of human rights. He didn’t succeed entirely. When he tried to appoint a critic of the human rights bureau’s very existence to head it up, Congress rejected the nomination.

But Reagan’s influence ensured our human rights approach proceeded a la carte — using it as a cudgel against adversaries when it suited us and ignoring it otherwise.

Carter’s imprint on our foreign policy remains. The U.S. government must still consider the implications our foreign policy has on human rights. In practice, those concerns are routinely cast aside, but someone still asks the question.

I’ve been part of those discussions and have written reports to inform them, documenting human rights abuses and recommending to leaders in Washington that we cease military and financial assistance to bad actors as a result.

I took comfort in knowing that someone on the other end was reading these reports, though usually it was just a congressional staffer or mid-ranking civil servant in a State Department annex.

If human rights records had the clout that Carter intended, reports like these would have shaped our foreign policy instead, ensuring that those who foster injustice and violence would not remain beneficiaries of U.S. support. The infrastructure for that to happen is in place, just waiting for the next Jimmy Carter to revitalize it and make human rights a cornerstone of American foreign policy again.


More Opinion:
From the commentary: Increasing the deposit insurance cap and focusing on small business transaction accounts could stabilize midsize banks, reduce more deposit transfers out of those institutions, and shore up confidence in the banking system. If there is enough support in Congress, the Biden administration should submit a request for rapid approval.
From the commentary: Take springtime, season of quickening, season of equal parts shadow and light — the very equation at its astronomical heart, the vernal equinox marking the fleeting moment when earth’s axis aligns directly with the sun, and the planet is neatly halved with equal allotments of light, and the sun shines squarely on the equator.
From the commentary: During these times of increasing polarization, community conversations in libraries continue to show us there is so much more that connects us than divides us.
From the commentary: In the administration’s rush to appease the powerful oil industry, it has once again demonstrated that no matter which party is in power, it must kowtow to corporate interests who green-wash their way to record profits at the expense of our planet’s health
From the commentary: There is a way, meanwhile, politicians can put themselves in charge: They can buy the business.
From the commentary: Parents are witnessing the fallout from these political attacks on teachers as districts resort to substitutes and larger class sizes because they can’t hire enough staff.
From the commentary: The divisive rhetoric permeating the political landscape today is even filtering down to what used to be less partisan areas — like official White House and congressional accounts.
From the commentary: As bystanders in the political farce consuming much of the Republican race for president, we can give thanks that DeSantis has decided to battle against the sinister forces of wokeness and leave the important issues pretty much alone.
From the commentary: The fact that most Americans speak only English puts our country at an economic disadvantage and threatens national security if we cannot understand and analyze potential threats such as terrorism or contagions.
From the commentary: The antisemitism on college campuses coincides with a troubling rise in anti-Israel sentiment.

Elizabeth Shackelford is a senior fellow on U.S. foreign policy with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She was previously a U.S. diplomat. This commentary is the columnist's opinion. Send feedback to:

©2023 Chicago Tribune. Visit at Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


This story was written by one of our partner news agencies. Forum Communications Company uses content from agencies such as Reuters, Kaiser Health News, Tribune News Service and others to provide a wider range of news to our readers. Learn more about the news services FCC uses here.

What To Read Next
Get Local