Human rights and American interests
The Trilateral Commission has indeed been doing good work. You have brought together leading citizens and the best minds to bear on common problems, enjoying each other's company and the concourse of ideas. Above all, you have done so out of the conviction that the United States, Europe, and Japan share an uncommonm destiny, to give the world an unparalleledm example of security, prosperity and harmony.
In recent years, doubts have been raised about our ability to do these great things together.
The problem is not will but confusion, not lack of strength but lack of clarity. Nowhere in our foreign policy is this more obvious than on the issue of human rights.
Let me deal first with the question of whether a concern for human rights is compatible with the pursuit of America's national interest. My answer to this is a resounding "yes." The supreme American national interest is simple and compelling: we want a world hospitable to our society and our common ideals. As a practical matter, our national interest requires us to resist those who would extinguish those ideals and are hostile to our common aspirations. But there is a positive aspect to our national interest that should be stressed. Let us not make the mistake of allowing other peoples to believe that America and the Western world means nothing more than sophisticated technology and the consumer society. From its very beginning, the US has been about life and liberty, not just the pursuit of happiness.
We wish that every people could enjoy the blessings of liberty as we enjoy them. But there are limits to what we can or should do to transform other cultures, customs, and institutions.
At the same time, we confront another aspect of reality, the Soviet Union and its allies -- countries that reject our concepts of human rights -- continue to enlarge their military power and seem increasingly inclined to use their arms to advance their cause.
Unlike the Soviets, we are not going to deprive peoples of their dignity and choice. Nonetheless, we are not prepared to see the world remade by others hostile to our deepest convictions held by civilized societies everywhere. We cannot stand back as if we were an island unto ourselves, observing international aggression from a safe distance. Our resistance to this aggression and our assistance to its victims constitutes a defense of human rights that is at the very basis of our foreign policy and our national interest.
Let us be clear on one issue: the US opposes the violation of human rights by ally or adversary, friend or foe. We are not going to pursue a policy of "selective indignation."
The difficulty here lies not in the fact of violation itself, which must always be opposed, but how to assess the danger of the violation and how best to deal with the violator. We should distinguish between the deprivation of national rights through aggression and the deprivation of personal rights through oppression. The former is an international problem of long standing; the mechanisms for controlling aggression are an imperfect but workable association of military strength, self-interest, and collective security. But the mechanisms for dealing with regimes that oppress their citizens are much more rudimentary and unpredictable. In protesting the offensive domestic actions of a government, we affect the international situation as well. It is a recurrent tragedy of the human condition --and foreign policy -- that the choice of a lesser evil is still very evil. It does little good to remedy the grievances of a few if that brings down worse oppression on the many.
The point to be made is that we must be discriminating in our actions with an eye to the source of the violation and the impact of our protest on the violator. We should distinguish between the so-called totalitarian and authoritarian regimes. The totalitarian model unfortunately draws upon the resources of modern technology to impose its will on all aspects of a citizen's behavior. The totalitarian regimes tend to be intolerant at home and abroad, actively hostile to all we represent and ideologically resistant to political change.
The authoritarian regime usually stems from a lack of political or economic development and customarily reserves for itself absolute authority in only a few politically sensitive areas. I am not making a case for the excellence of authoritarian government; I am making the case that such regimes are more likely to change than their totalitarian counterparts. It should be our objective to hold forth ourselves as a model worthy of imitation as that change occurs and to help the evolution of authoritarian government toward a more democratic form.
A very practical question remains: how to advance human rights? This is an issue of both method and purpose, for the way something is done frequently determines whether it is done at all.
Let me put before you a few imperatives for advancing human rights:
The first imperative is to strengthen the US, its allies and friends, the main safeguard against the spread of totalitarian aggression.
Second, we must improve our own example as a society dedicated to justice.
Third, we should adopt a sense of proportion in dealing with violators -- the authoritarian versus the totalitarian regime.
Fourth, and finally, it is imperative that we examine the credentials and programs of the opposition, as well as the government --tends for human rights in the future.
Practically speaking, this means that policy on human rights must be integrated into the sphere of diplomacy, not pursued as if it were the only virtue in a foreign policy of otherwise petty or distasteful acts. We must also develop a balance between private persuasion and public pronouncement. We must care more for results than for rhetoric.