National Interests vs. Human Rights in International Politics

Instructor: Michelle Penn

Michelle has a J.D. and her PhD in History.

In international relations, scholars who focus on human rights have been called idealists, while those who focus on national interest are known as realists. Today, many politicians and experts have said this division between human rights and national interest is false, and that human rights are in the national interest.

Human Rights vs. National Interest

Are human rights and the national interest opposed to one another? Or can human rights be an important part of a country's national interest? For example, do you think America should ignore human rights in its foreign policy? Or do you think human rights should be a focus of America's foreign policy concerns?

A Short History of 'The National Interest'

The national interest refers to a state conducting foreign policy in its own self-interest. Some people believe the national interest is separate from any concerns about morality. One well-known advocate of following the national interest in foreign affairs was Hans Morgenthau, a German-Jewish international relations expert who immigrated to the United States a few years before World War II began. Morgenthau worked for the United States government and published a number of books including one titled In Defense of the National Interest.

Morgenthau and his followers were termed realists in international relations. Even though Morgenthau believed in following the national interest, he did not believe that this was separate from morality. On the contrary, he believed that morality required following the national interest because 'national survival' was a 'moral duty for a nation.' A nation that would 'subordinate' the 'national interest to some other standard is unworthy of a nation great in human civilization.' Such a nation would 'become the prey and victim of other nations which know how to take care of their interests.' It wasn't that Morgenthau and other realists disagreed with human rights ideas. Rather, realists didn't think that human rights were practical in international relations.

A Short History of Human Rights

Human rights are the set of certain rights that people have regardless of the rights recognized by their government. However, speaking about human rights did not became common until the second half of the 20th century. One of the most prominent voices speaking about human rights was a British lawyer named Hersch Lauterpacht. Lauterpacht came from a Jewish family in the Austro-Hungarian empire, and emigrated to Britain before World War II. Nearly all of his family members were killed in the Holocaust, which reinforced for Lauterpachtthe importance of human rights in the world.

Lauterpacht, like the realists, thought that human rights and the national interest were at odds with one another. However, unlike the realists, Lauterpacht thought international law sometimes needed to constrain national interests in favor of larger concerns about human rights. International politics should work to create a more peaceful world order that values human rights. For Lauterpacht, human rights were the rightful primary focus of international relations, rather than the national interest. This approach has been termed idealist.

Idealism in American Foreign Policy: Jimmy Carter

President Jimmy Carter advocated for human rights in American foreign policy
Jimmy Carter picture

It wasn't until the 1970s that human rights ideas really exploded onto the international stage. Jimmy Carter, the American president from 1977-1981, believed human rights could be part of the national interest, and proclaimed human rights an important part of his administration's foreign policy. Carter and other idealists argued that human rights were consistent with the national interest of the United States. Supporting human rights would lead to a more stable and peaceful world, which was in the interest of the United States.

Human Rights in the National Interest

Like Jimmy Carter, many politicians and international relations experts believe human rights and the national interest are compatible. This idealism comes from both ends of the political spectrum. On the conservative side, Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin has written that human rights are part of the national interest because America derives 'respect and influence' when seen as a force for good, and America loses that 'when we stand idly by as others are persecuted.' As a result, choosing between human rights and the national interest is a false choice.

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