Analysis & Opinions - Project Syndicate

Biden and Human Rights

| Apr. 05, 2021

The goals that US presidents have sought over the years do not reflect a pursuit of justice at the international level similar to what they aspired to at home. At the same time, liberal societies have duties to uphold values beyond their borders, and doing so is a part of their national interest.

During Joe Biden's long career in the US Senate, he established a record of supporting human rights as a goal of American foreign policy. Now, as president, Biden's commitment in this area is being put to the test.

Foreign policy involves trade-offs among many issues, including security, economic interests, and other values. But when it comes to human rights, trade-offs often give rise to charges of hypocrisy or cynicism.

Consider the 2018 killing of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul. Former President Donald Trump was criticized for ignoring clear evidence of a brutal crime in order to maintain good relations with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, better known as MBS.

Liberals criticized Trump's mild reaction to Khashoggi's murder as remorselessly transactional and heedless of the facts. Even the conservative Wall Street Journal editorialized that "we are aware of no President, not even such ruthless pragmatists as Richard Nixon or Lyndon Johnson, who would have written a public statement like this without so much as a grace note about America's abiding values and principles."

Trump viewed access to oil, sales of military equipment, and regional stability as paramount, but ignored that upholding values and principles that are attractive to others is also an important national interest. Defending human rights tells the world who Americans are, and enhances America's soft power, or the ability to get what one wants through attraction rather than coercion or payment....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Nye, Joseph S. Jr.“Biden and Human Rights.” Project Syndicate, April 5, 2021.