Our Interests, Our Values, and Our Country

flags of different countries blowing in the wind

Note: The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. Government.

I have spent much of the past several months thinking about the role of human rights in U.S. foreign policy. And I am far from alone in that regard. I work as a John Gardner Fellow for the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL), alongside colleagues who have built their careers considering this subject.

The work done by DRL ultimately hinges upon a longstanding question: In conducting foreign policy, how should a country balance its interests and its values?

This question sets the stage for a debate between two schools of thought in the literature on international relations: realism and idealism. Realists argue that the geopolitical landscape is inherently anarchic, as there is no sovereign that can enforce agreements between countries, and that leaders should accordingly make policy based on their nation’s interests. By contrast, idealists argue that nations should make their values—like those of democracy and human rights—the centerpiece of their foreign policy.

Over the course of my fellowship, I have realized how frequently this debate comes up in tangible decisions facing policymakers. Should we build a closer relationship with Egypt, a potentially valuable partner on issues like counterterrorism, despite President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s crackdown against political opponents and activists? Should we seek to trade more with Burma, opening up an untapped market for U.S. businesses, even as the country’s military commits atrocities against the Rohingya population? Should we criticize the democratic backsliding witnessed in Hungary, even if it means adding friction to an already fractious European Union?

In my view, this debate is distorted by the assumption that our values and our interests are mutually exclusive. Rather, they are often complementary, particularly when it comes to the long run.

From a short-term vantage point, it may seem like our security, business, or political interests are served best by being quiet on human rights concerns. It is possible, for instance, that Egypt would be a more engaged military partner if the United States were to silence its criticism of Cairo’s repressiveness. But through this silence, the United States would signal its acquiescence to such actions, encouraging Egypt to pursue coercive policies that are uniquely effective in generating hostility among its own population. Countries with no room for political change or dissent are breeding grounds for terrorism, a point that should dissuade us from any initial urge to avoid commenting on human rights abuses.

Closed, restrictive regimes do not operate in a vacuum. As the Arab Spring demonstrated, dictators leave their countries open to conflict when they deny opponents adequate political freedoms. These conflicts can spill past borders, extending the damage done by individual governments to wider regions. When we speak up about human rights, we in turn serve our traditional interests by speaking up for a world with greater stability and prosperity. We also serve our values by advocating for a world that is more compassionate and less cruel.

DRL collectively dedicates itself to reminding policymakers that human rights cannot be sidelined on the basis of a mistaken notion of our interests. To do so would be counterproductive to that very goal.