Throughout much of American history we have struggled with how to reconcile our foreign policy strategic interests with our stated commitments to the virtues of democracy, freedom, and human rights. Our Cold War support for right wing dictatorships and authoritarian regimes was a lightening rod for criticism from the American Left (while the American Right wondered why we did not do more to fund insurgents in totalitarian communist and socialist countries). Of course prior to the Cold War we allied with one totalitarian state (the USSR) in order to take down another (Germany). However, things might be changing. Recently American foreign policy has seen an increase in human rights justifications for military endeavors abroad including Iraq and Libya (though to be sure other reasons and public justifications were present in both decisions). We also appear to be taking up the cause in our diplomatic missions as well as reported in a recent Washington Post article on US interaction with Russian opposition leaders and human rights advocates.
This turn towards human rights should be welcomed across the political spectrum as human rights is a central tenet of many disparate political ideologies from American liberalism to neoconservatism. The focus on human rights should increase our reputation while avoiding the types of embarrassing scenarios we have found ourselves in the past where we are forced to back repressive dictators such as the Shah of Iran or Mubarak in Egypt and leave ourselves open to accusations of hypocrisy. However, we must also always be aware of two potential problems with this new focus on human rights. First, they can be used as cover for actions truly designed for other goals as some have accused the Bush and Obama administrations of doing with Iraq and Libya respectively. We should not just accept a proposed operation, treaty, summit, etc. because it is defined as promoting human rights. It is important to always consider all the possible consequences and rationales for a policy not just its claimed effects on human rights. Second, while human rights are always an admirable goal it must be balanced with our pursuit of our national and strategic interests abroad. A foreign policy centered around human rights is theoretically pleasing, but it has the possibility for being abused both by internal and external actors. Thus, realpolitik must remain another central tenet of our policy. Therefore, the real question is what should the balance be between the two?