Only last week, the State Department announced with much fanfare that the United States would re-engage with the United Nations Human Rights Council, committing to “a foreign policy centered on democracy, human rights, and equality.” Now, just a week later, the State Department says it will sell nearly $200 million of weapons to Egypt, a country with a long and well-documented history of gross human rights violations – abuses that include, just a few days ago, the arrest of six relatives of Egyptian-American activist Mohamed Soltan. In an instant, several rhetorical and symbolic gestures that had seemed to place human rights at the fore of the Biden foreign policy agenda were undermined by a single act that loudly proclaimed a return to business as usual.

The episode provides an early reminder that if the Biden administration truly wants to lead, and to be seen as a leader, on human rights, then it will need to address the tensions that lie at the intersection of American national security practices and its professed support for human rights. Because the American record has been marred most consistently and indelibly not when the United States has failed to protect human rights, but when clear human rights concerns failed to constrain the pursuit of perceived “national security” interests.

The American Balancing Act

Scholars of law, history, and policy have long attributed the many past examples of America’s unwillingness to constrain its own actions on the basis of human rights to the particular strain of realism (shorthand here for realpolitik) that courses through the American foreign policy tradition. Any self-proclaimed realist would seldom, if ever, support American intervention in the name of human rights (such as Rwanda in 1994), but they would also object to the idea that the human rights of nameless, individual human beings or a set of “international” laws meant to protect them should perforce limit the actions of the United States as a superpower.

Classic titans of realism, among them Henry Kissinger and the late George Schulz, could defend a certain degree of indifference to the worst human rights outcomes of American security policies on the basis of what Robert Kaplan has termed the greater “public morality” derived from the responsibility of the policymaker to protect the material interests of the American voter. Yet for reasons equally well-documented, most “modern” foreign policy practitioners on both sides of the aisle now publicly recognize human rights as a valid concern in the conduct of American foreign policy, even if they are unwilling to abandon the flexibility sought and enjoyed by their realist forebears, especially in matters of security policy.

Rather than resolving the contradictions that predictably arise from trying to have it both ways, contemporary American policymakers instead publicly embrace the idea of an interests-values equilibrium, traditionally characterized by one of two principal dimensions. The first portrays an alluring, but misleading sweet spot — a golden mean — that rests between American support for human rights and the pursuit of American interests. The second suggests that certain “affirmative” gestures offered in support of human rights can effectively balance against inadequate rights-based constraints on American national security policies.

In the first dimension, human rights have a home in American foreign policy; but as “normative” judgements and “soft” issues, they simply must be set aside at times because the national interests cannot be compromised to satisfy the individual morality of a few bleeding hearts or special interests. The idea of “balance” in this sense has come to represent far more than a set of difficult tradeoffs involved in any single decision; it now serves as the euphemism of choice for reassuring us that an unsavory decision made today in favor of security interests will be met by some countermanding action that restores the moral equilibrium of American policy at some time in the future. It is the kind of political language disdained by George Orwell for making the indefensible defensible, and has obscured the reality that the status quo is prone to remain, if anything, out of balance.

The second dimension of the rights-interests equilibrium involves balancing the “positive” ways that the United States promotes human rights against any human rights consequences that result from other actions. Using this framework, arms sales that perpetuate humanitarian crises can be offset with training in international law; counterterrorism assistance to security forces in a country where the same forces are involved with restricting civil society can be offset with financial support to civil society somewhere else.

This sleight of hand also allows the deft policymaker to count “positive” forms of human rights promotion as means of advancing American security interests. So human rights becomes a dimension of U.S. foreign policy that need not compete with — and moreover, may actually compliment — the national security interest. (Note: While slightly unfair to call upon a single example, Susan Rice’s speech at Human Rights First in 2013 provides examples of both kinds of equilibrium expressed rhetorically.)

While a convenient and effective device in the short term, the misleading notion of a rights-interests equilibrium in practice has led to justifiable perceptions of inconsistency, even hypocrisy, over the long run, and may do further damage by exploiting human rights issues. Such an idea of equilibrium also dilutes the positive effects and effectiveness of other, critical forms of human rights leadership (such as re-engaging the Human Rights Council). In the end, credibility on human rights simply requires a more consistent regime of disciplined self-restraint. Adopting this maxim could provide a reasonable starting point for the administration if it wants to lead on human rights.

(Stop) Running with the Devil

Even if the Biden administration is not yet ready for the kind of foreign policy and national security revolution many critics have justifiably called for, foregoing the illusion of the rights-interests equilibrium in favor of a reasonable modicum of self-restraint on “national security” to serve a set of mostly compatible goals is well within reach. The administration could, for example, start with changing the American relationship with relevant sources of international law to more openly accept boundaries on its own security practices as a legal matter, placing the United States within, rather than outside of, the “cathedral” of human rights law. It could — and should — also rein in the counterterrorism practices that have become synonymous with human rights abuses, and place more emphasis on accountability for torture and war crimes.

But the fact that this recent Egypt case rhymes so well with the most notorious episodes of a more distant past, such as U.S. support to autocrats during the Cold War, suggests that the simplest and most logical opportunities to dramatically improve America’s record on human rights exist where U.S. security interests most frequently, practically, and directly interact with human rights concerns over time. As the global leader in arms sales, and the world’s largest provider of security assistance ($19 billion per year), security cooperation provides a natural starting point.

Toward this end, the administration should dramatically reduce the disproportionate emphasis given to security cooperation with states that have problematic human rights records. This should include limiting any lethal aid to states with documented histories of torture, excessive use of force, and that impose severe restrictions on the freedom of expression, association, and assembly.

While presidential administrations have attempted to resist congressional efforts to legislate a similar restriction since the late 1970’s, there are good policy reasons to take this position, or something close to it, voluntarily. For example, America’s tendency to bind itself so tightly to its human rights-abusing partners through security cooperation not only invites scrutiny of its human rights leadership, but paradoxically exposes the United States to the equivalent of political blackmail when human rights issues inevitably rise to the fore, creating a strategic vulnerability by exposing America’s security dependencies. Take, for example, threats from Morocco to cancel military exercises over the U.S. position on human rights in the Western Sahara in 2013, or pervasive concerns that Bahrain could expel the U.S. Navy’s 5th fleet over American pressure on human rights.

True partnerships thrive on the compatibility of interests and shared threat perceptions, not on the nature or frequency of transactions. U.S. policymakers should not, and need not, countenance any longer a set of conditions in which certain partners can rely on security cooperation as a means of political extortion.


The recent archives of Just Security provide a bounty of excellent recommendations for placing human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy. Re-investing in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor will strengthen the capacity of the State Department to monitor issues of human rights concern, to interface with civil society, and to support activists globally.  Elevating the rank and profile of human rights in the National Security Council would give human rights greater heft and influence in the decision-making process. By re-engaging the Human Rights Council, the United States will start a process of strengthening a system of mutual evaluation and giving meaning to international laws. Improving human rights at home, with much-needed reforms to state and local policies, will further strengthen American credibility on human rights abroad.

Each and any of these ideas stands an even greater chance of long-term success if the administration musters the political courage to forego the superficial satisfaction of short-term flexibility when it must. And doing so would provide American foreign policy with a much-needed infusion of credibility, consistency, and moral authority precisely at the time when the administration itself says that values provide the country with its principle source of competitive advantage.

(The views expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official position of CIVIC.)

IMAGE: Egyptian military officers talk with Saudi men at the Saudi stand during Egypts first Service Defence Exhibition in Cairo on December 3, 2018, at the International Exhibition Center. (Photo by KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images)