THE CARTER Administration's recent moves to make U.S. foreign policy more sensitive to the problem of human rights are to be commended. These initiatives--the reference to human rights in President Carter's inaugural address, his support for Andrei Sakharov and other Soviet dissidents, and his administration's cut-back in aid to repressive regimes in Argentina, Uruguay and Ethiopia--mark a welcome change from the amorality of U.S. foreign dealings under Secretary of State Henry Kissinger '50. There are also indications that Carter's support for human rights has begun to have an effect: several U.S. aid recipients have announced in the past months that they plan to loosen the reins of internal repression to curry favor with the new Administration.
But the Administration's advocacy of human rights has not gone far enough. Statements on the issue from Carter and his top advisors have notably failed to mention American-supported foreign regimes which systematically violate the most basic human rights; the current Chilean junta, the Marcos government in the Philippines and the Vorster regime in South Africa are three notorious examples.
Carter's gestures have remained symbolic. If not backed up by more concrete action, they may quickly lead to a foreign policy style that is superficially humane but substantatively corrupt; a policy of preaching respect for human rights while selectively overlooking corruption and repression among countries that receive U.S. support. That this superficiality may fast become an operating principle was suggested last week when in announcing the aid restrictions Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance said the U.S. would not press the human rights issue with countries in which America has "strategic interests."
Vance's reference to "strategic interests" must be viewed warily. Ever since the outbreak of the Cold War, this term has been flashed as a code-word for U.S. opposition to national liberation movements abroad and support for any and all regimes that will safeguard America's sphere of influence and the business interests of U.S. firms. During this time, furthermore, the Pentagon has learned to use words like "strategic interests" in a vague and menacing way to justify the continued presence and build-up of U.S. weapons and military personnel in countries under blatantly corrupt and repressive leadership.
THIS TREND has been consolidated by the nature of the aid process itself. As the U.S. becomes involved with repressive governments abroad, the "stability" of these regimes appears increasingly central to our strategic interests. Yet it is in many of these countries that the need to exert influence against internal repression is greatest. Certainly the domestic policies of U.S.-aided countries like Chile, the Philippines, South Africa and Iran, which Vance and Carter for the most part have left out of their references to human rights violations, merit not only public condemnation but the application of strong economic and political sanctions on the Administration's part.
This is not to say that dealing with human rights in our foreign involvements will or should be simple, or that the Carter administration should be expected to reform a tradition of amoral pragmatism overnight. Foreign policy, which deals with so many conflicting commitments and considerations, can never be formulated successfully according to hard and fast moral doctrines. Rather, it is to be hoped that the Carter administration will continue to press the issue of human rights in principle, deal with each case on its own merits, and strive to make public the elements involved in each case so that the American people can judge if the government is fully living up to promise to make human rights a top foreign policy priority. The problem is crucial, and warrants continued public skepticism regarding both the nature and the necessity of what the government and the military may call "strategic interests."