THE World Conference on Human Rights, which ended last weekend in Vienna, raised anew the question of what role human rights should play in United States foreign policy. Most of the talk in Vienna spread more confusion than clarity.
It will help to sort this out if we go back to basics. To begin with, greater respect for human rights throughout the world is in the US national interest. We tend to get along better with countries that have good human rights records than with those which do not. American citizens living or traveling in such countries have fewer problems.
So promotion of human rights is an appropriate objective of US foreign policy. But it is only one objective among others, including military security, access to essential raw materials, protection of American business abroad, the growth of foreign trade, and suppression of the drug trade. In the real world of diplomacy, it is rarely possible to promote one of these objectives without sacrificing another.
Second, we need to keep firmly in mind what rights we are talking about. There are all kinds, some more important than others. The modern phase of US emphasis on human rights in foreign policy was pushed on a reluctant executive branch by a Congress fed up with reports of torture in Brazil in the 1960s. The right not to be physically abused is the most basic of all rights; it is also the most narrow one.
Later, especially under Presidents Carter and Reagan, the promotion of democracy - that is, the right to vote - was added.
Freedom from torture and freedom to vote imply other rights - freedom of speech and assembly, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures - so that political parties can be organized and political campaigns conducted.
All of these rights, fundamental and narrow though they are, are matters of degree. There is a wide spectrum between a prisoner roughed up by police in the course of an arrest - and being subject to systematic torture over a period of weeks. Freedom of the press is circumscribed by the law of libel.
So in the real world of diplomacy another tradeoff has to be made: Where do you draw the line between what is acceptable and what is not?
IN the third place, there is no general agreement that US human-rights policy ought to be narrowly limited. Many Americans define rights more broadly. And most third-world countries define them more broadly still - to include such things as the "right" to a job, to education, to health care, to housing. These things are desirable social and economic goals, but they are not advanced by enshrining them as rights. The difference is between something that is a restraint on government (it cannot torture; it c annot stop free speech) and something that is a claim against government (a job, a house).
This distinction is getting fuzzy even in the US. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops recently called adequate health care a human right. And the Supreme Court has agreed to consider whether a prisoner has a right not to be confined in a cell with another inmate who smokes five packs of cigarettes a day. Presumably not many people would argue that concern for these things ought to be a part of US foreign policy.
Finally, we come to the question of whether, in a specific case, we can achieve any human rights objectives, and at what cost to our other interests. This sometimes produces what strikes some people as a cynical abandonment of human rights, and strikes others as acceptance of political reality. Both Presidents Bush and Clinton were criticized for extending most-favored-nation (MFN) trade treatment to China despite that country's record of human rights abuses. But it is an open question whether withholdin g MFN would actually lead to human rights improvement. Certainly it would cost a good deal in trade.
Serbia is the country with the most atrocious current human rights record. We cannot do anything about it short of going to war, which we are not willing to do. So we express our disapproval by having nothing to do with the Serbs. That is a reasonable policy.
We can be tougher on El Salvador, which doesn't have very much that we want, than on Bolivia or Peru, whose cooperation we desperately need in the war on drugs.
In all of this, we need to remember that there is a fine line between forthright support of human rights and self-righteous posturing or even hypocrisy.
Foreign policy may not have been a great deal more enlightened, but it was certainly easier, back in the days of the cold war when everybody knew what our main objective was.