PERSPECTIVE ON HUMAN RIGHTS : Patience Works Better Than Bluster : The winds of change that foster democratic growth also undermine official crusading. A strong U.S. is our best policy.

<i> Alan Tonelson is a fellow at the Economic Strategy Institute in Washington. A longer version of this article appears in the winter issue of Foreign Policy magazine. </i>

From Bosnia to China, from Haiti to Rwanda, America’s human-rights policy is a shambles. Not only has Washington failed to significantly ameliorate human-rights problems around the world; many of its efforts also have threatened U.S. security and economic interests and antagonized even fellow democracies.

Clearly, the standard explanations--allegedly naive campaign promises, allegedly inept diplomacy--no longer suffice. Instead, the very idea of a government-centered human-rights policy has become obsolete in the post-Cold War era--swamped, ironically, by the very forces that only yesterday generated widespread American expectations of a dawning human-rights golden age.

As both liberals and conservatives saw it, America would no longer have to back dictators for anti-Soviet reasons. Communism’s collapse would bring the blessings of national self-determination to numerous captive peoples. And the global revolutions in communications and commerce would spread democracy and free enterprise to even the most repressive societies.


Yet two of the main features of the post-Cold War world are overwhelming the impact of any government’s policies on democracy’s progress.

The first entails the so-called failed states that have been exposed by the Soviet collapse in Eurasia and by the end of superpower confrontation throughout the Third World.

The outrages in the world’s Bosnias and Somalias are usually called “human-rights violations,” but this phrase trivializes the problem. These horrendous conditions reflect nothing less than a monumental struggle not over the issues of democratization but of basic coherence.

If success is achieved--and in many places, that’s a big “if”--it will result overwhelmingly from developments on the level of day-to-day human life, from the uncontrollable impact over many decades of the countless decisions taken by individuals and groups that ultimately define their identities. Outsiders’ actions can only have marginal effects.

The second feature explains America’s problems in pressing for human rights in more advanced repressive countries such as China: The accelerated global economic and cultural interaction lying behind so much recent human-rights optimism is the very force that has dwarfed government human-rights policies. Precisely because governments, businesses and individuals can now interact so easily in so many different ways, government actions inevitably get lost in the shuffle.

Western and American values will not be the only seeds dropped by the gales of commerce, information and culture blowing around the world today. But if we want them to spread, then we should lead from strength. We should add energetically to America’s already vast commercial, cultural and ideological influence around the world, rather than replace it with legislation or executive orders.


The China issue, along with last year’s controversy over NAFTA, does highlight one rights-related issue that demands better U.S. government policies: the question of how most of our work force can benefit from American trade with countries that repress labor rights. American workers are already exposed to strong competition from hundreds of millions of workers in developing countries who are highly educated and highly productive in the service of the world’s leading multinational corporations. Yet they earn a fraction of American wages and are usually denied the right to form independent unions, bargain collectively or strike. Lack of labor rights is hardly the only reason for their success, but it can create major competitive advantages.

Unlike other human-rights issues, labor-rights issues directly affect millions of Americans. But they are best seen not as human-rights issues at all, rather as challenges in managing interdependence--in ensuring that the great integrative forces shaping the world economy enrich, not impoverish, most Americans.

Nor can labor-rights problems be solved by acting out the stylized morality plays dominating human-rights policy today--by issuing the same voluminous reports detailing rights and wrongs around the world and the same somber condemnations of wrongdoing, or by attempts to dictate the social and economic priorities of other countries.

Instead, these problems require a raft of competitiveness policies designed to increase U.S. economic power and leverage. Flourishing U.S. markets and abundant supplies of U.S. capital and technology will give other countries powerful incentives to conform to our labor, environmental and other standards voluntarily--not as acknowledgments of American moral superiority or as acts of surrender, but simply as the price of access.

Crusading for utopian change around the world will rarely achieve the goals Americans set. Our best bets are measures that enable this nation to survive, flourish and bargain successfully in the deeply flawed world that we will remain stuck with for many decades to come.