Do We Care About Human Rights?

Enough to do anything substantial about atrocities, anyway...

It’s been instructive watching how, despite substantial evidence that the Chinese are perpetrating a mass atrocity against the Muslim Uighur population, the so-called “international community” is largely silent on the matter. Moreover, anecdotally (from you, Shadi, and others) I have heard that many Muslims across the world are mostly passive on the issue. Muslims appear to be more likely to see these horrific reports as Western agitprop and to perceive the Chinese as upstarts fighting against hegemonic powers bent on keeping them down.

It’s been a commonplace to pour scorn on the 1930s generation for not doing enough to halt Hitler despite it at the time already being quite clear where things were headed. “Never again” are powerful words indeed, but the idea of “mass moral progress” has never resonated with me, nor has the idea that the sheer enormity of the Holocaust provides some kind of “teachable moment.” There have of course been counter-examples in the 20th century, like Cambodia and Bangladesh, that should have given all moral optimists pause. But more personally, having watched the wars of the 1990s in the Balkans, it became clear how low a priority human life plays in politics.

We can have a discussion about what perhaps “ought” to be the case, but I’m more interested in grappling with what “is,” and why it is so persistent. I bring up the anecdotal evidence of lack of solidarity in the broader Muslim world with the Uighurs not to discuss how narratives and counter-narratives on colonialism are preventing people from seeing what’s really going on. Rather, I want to suggest that when push comes to shove, there is massive inertia against getting anything “done” globally. I suggest to you that this is because people’s circles of empathy are much more stubbornly narrow than idealists would like to believe, and while activist efforts to broaden empathy can sometimes move the needle, that same needle soon enough falls back to more or less where it was before.

— Damir

I agree with you that most people aren’t like, well, me—in the sense that they can’t be bothered to care much about what’s going on in other countries, particularly when they’re consumed by internal divisions at home (and, sadly, nearly every major country is roiled by the perception if not the reality of unprecedented polarization).

But is this fundamentally an empathy question? Part of the problem when it comes to atrocities committed against the Uighurs is who they’re committed by. It is hard to get large numbers of people genuinely worked up about anything that China does. It’s not that they have a soft spot for the Chinese regime (although they might, particularly those who, in their weakness of spirit, insist on self flagellation about America’s fundamental badness); It’s more that China is culturally remote—and the more remote something is, the more difficult it becomes to feel intensely about it. This is quite unlike, say, the Middle East. While the region is often treated as a cultural and religious “other,” there’s also an intimacy there, a shared monotheism, dueling universalisms in Christianity and Islam, and a mutual, if somewhat misplaced, fascination.

The protests across the globe in solidarity with Black Lives Matter are partly borne out of the hope, however unrealistic but still very much alive, that America is—or is at least supposed to be—better. At some basic level, I think that even those who do understand the evils of the Chinese regime also understand that this is precisely what totalitarian states do. There is no gap, then, between expectation and reality, and it’s that dissonance that often fuels outrage. There is no such dissonance here. There’s also a sense of futility: that nothing much can be done.

This is why I care less about empathy. I care much more about (God forgive me for saying it) elite leadership. The only way to reduce the scale and intensity of China’s atrocities is through international leadership, and even in a time of U.S. decline, that can only mean one thing: U.S. leadership—through sanctions and other punitive measures.

As for “progress,” there was progress. There was an international norm that the United States should at least consider military intervention in extreme cases of systematic and deliberate mass atrocities where it was feasible. Obviously, China doesn’t fall in that category, but when it came to states like, say, Syria and Libya, it was something enough people still believed in. Those norms were shattered, not because human beings changed or became less empathetic but because of a failure of leadership, primarily on the part of the Obama administration during various critical moments. And once the U.S. lost faith in its own commitments, others did too, in part—and I return to this—because they had the audacity to believe in us more than we believed in ourselves.


I wonder at the motivations of foreign BLM protesters. Like you, I’ve read the analyses—and even anecdotally heard from friends—that many were out protesting in celebration of higher ideals. In Europe, however, it’s difficult to cleanly separate that out from a persistent disdain for, and a sense of frustrated superiority towards, America and Americans. For many Europeans—but really to be precise, mostly Western Europeans—Trump’s grotesqueness is a confirmation of everything they have always suspected about us. Many Germans can be obsessive about American race problems in a way that seems to be tied to their own complex feelings of postwar guilt and redemption. The logic in France is somewhat different, and of different provenance, but the mechanism is roughly analogous.* And so while one can tell oneself a comforting story—that the ideals our country stands for are still a lodestar for humanity—I’d suggest that’s far too simplistic a way of understanding what’s happening.

What I’ve laid out above may appear to be mere quibbling at first, and you may well disagree with my analysis of people’s motivations. But if it at all rings true, I would ask you to consider my claim that attraction to pure abstract values is rarely a sufficient motivator for mass action.

Which brings me to your next point: leadership. I agree that without leadership you have absolutely nothing, and force of personality can count for a lot. But one shouldn’t therefore make the mistake of assuming that something called “leadership” can overcome stubborn political realities that are grounded in human nature. Wilson had to move mountains in order to drag a reluctant America into World War I, and all his pretty “values” talk about ending wars for all time ran into a wall with the public when it came to signing up for the League of Nations. Roosevelt would have probably succeeded in getting America into World War II even without Pearl Harbor, but a massive triggering event of some sort was in all likelihood necessary. Mass atrocities against civilians “over there”—even had the full extent of the extermination camps become publicized—would have, I’d argue, remained insufficient to mobilize consent.

As for the “norm” of Responsibility to Protect, solemnly “endorsed” into being in 2005 at the UN, I maintain that it’s not a lack of leadership that destroyed it, but rather the fact that it was as grounded in an idealized vision of humanity as the notoriously useless Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 (which sought to outlaw war). Yes, leadership means mobilizing consent, and yes, values can play a role. But I would argue that a good leader recognizes that values work best when legitimating violence done to avenge a deeply felt national affront. Spilling your blood and squandering your treasure solely to make the world a better place is—and always will be—a political loser. For America, and for every other society known to man, R2P was destined to be stillborn.

Even at the height of the Cold War, values talk worked only insofar as it was wedded to countering a perceived and palpable threat from abroad. The Soviet Union was seen as the enemy not because it was a totalitarian nightmare, but because it was understood to be legitimately threatening to our security, and seeking to undermine our way of life. Pointing out that the Soviet Union was a barbarous satrapy guided by alien values helped stiffen people’s spines, and values helped bind an often fractious Western alliance together in the face of a monstrous “other.” But values did not themselves drive the conflict. Threat did.

So if you want a fight with China, Shadi, you’re going to have to hope that they grossly misplay their hand and show themselves to be legitimately and incontrovertibly threatening to a majority of Americans (and Europeans). Until then, all your talk of “evil” will, I’m afraid, fall on mostly deaf ears.


* I’d be first to admit that there’s a lot more going on than just this, of course, but it would take us too far afield to delve into all of it, and I’m trying to make a narrower point.

Yes, I do agree with your claim that “attraction to pure abstract values is rarely a sufficient motivator for mass action.” One thing I have had to come to terms with as I’ve gotten older is that ideas matter, but they don’t matter as much as ideologues might wish. To have a “reckless mind” is generally a preoccupation of elites who have the time and luxury to dabble in dangerous ideas.

This, though, is where I think we might disagree: “But one shouldn’t, therefore, make the mistake of assuming that something called ‘leadership’ can overcome stubborn political realities that are grounded in human nature.” You mention Woodrow Wilson (may God forgive us for mentioning his dastardly name) and Roosevelt, but I’m not sure that their challenges in building support for foreign intervention were primarily due to the stubborn discomfort of ordinary Americans. Maybe if Twitter had existed that might have been the case. But this was an era where there was less democratization of information and more deference to elected representatives, once elected. The opposition that Wilson and Roosevelt experienced was primarily from other leaders and elites. I hope I’m not overstating that.

What is public opinion anyway, and how is it formed? Public opinion is often treated as an independent variable, as something that forces the hand of politicians. This is certainly how President Obama saw it, and he and his team would often point to the lack of domestic support for military action against the Assad regime. But the causal arrows are a bit more complicated: Public opinion is also a product of other things, including leadership. One can imagine a counterfactual history, where Obama himself willingly and eloquently made the case to the American people for why action in Syria was both in our ideals and interests. He chose not to do so. Why should the public get behind something the president is considering if they can tell that even he is not convinced?

Perhaps, as you suggest, a leader needs a national affront to mobilize support for foreign interventions. This is why most countries—particularly those that lack founding missionary ideologies, and most countries lack precisely that—are generally uninterested in humanitarian interventions. That’s most countries, but not all. American “exceptionalism” is so out of fashion these days that I feel almost sheepish about going in this direction, but… America, as the term appears to suggest, isn’t like other countries, particularly in this regard.

What counts as a “national affront” varies from country to country, because each country has a distinctive national identity. Our national identity, from the founding, has been intimately tied to notions of freedom and democracy and their universal applicability. This means that an ongoing massacre that claims the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocents five thousand miles away is, or at least could be, considered a national affront, not in spite of our national identity but because of it.


You’re not wrong about Obama. He didn’t feel the missionary pull and instead just used missionary language to convince himself that he was nevertheless consistent with what he (and you) see as America’s missionary position (pace Christopher Hitchens).

But you’re not really grappling with my point, Shadi. I’m not asserting that leadership has no role to play in forming public opinion, but I am suggesting that there are hard limits to what leadership can do. Like I said in the opening salvo, I think concerted activists can temporarily move the needle if they really try, but it’s ultimately a Sisyphean task. Can I say with certainty where those limits lie? No, of course not. But I am suggesting that, for example, Reagan’s crusading spirit about higher values and ideals amounts to nothing without the reality of the Soviet Union as a strategic threat, and the broader context of the Cold War and the attendant possibility of nuclear annihilation.

Maybe Obama could have dragged the United States into efforts at both making Libya less of a failed state than it is today and at forcing regime change in Syria, followed by a robust project of nation- and state-building there as well. But even leaving aside that we simply don’t know how to do such things at all, I’m suggesting that on balance Obama would have paid a political price for such commitments.

It’s true, voters don’t really know how engaged we are in, say, Afghanistan, and that gives leaders space to maneuver. But neither are they powerfully moved by calls for improving the world. The Cold War gave us an enemy we could broadly agree on, and questioning the consensus was seen as treasonous. But with the enemy gone, questioning “values”-driven foreign policy engagements is fair game, and the equilibrium does not lie with the activists and idealists. I think that this is a bedrock reality of crafting foreign policy outside of the exceptional circumstances of the Cold War. Though a millenarian Protestantism has shaped American foreign policy since its founding, the modern “missionary position” is at the same time of surprisingly recent provenance and the relic of Cold War logic.

Let me wrap with a hopefully not too-grotesque generalization. World War II and the Holocaust led to two different lessons being drawn in the broader West. The progressive one—“never again”—sought to rebuild the world along more idealistic lines, saw humanity as fallen but improvable, saw tribalism and identity as dangerous vestiges of the past that could (and must) be overcome, and read into history a directionality ultimately leading if not to some kind of global government, at least to enlightened cooperation based on the universal recognition of human rights. The tragic one, by contrast, concluded that rights only exist within (and can ultimately only be guaranteed by) the state, that being a minority means resigning oneself to the tender mercies of fickle norms, and came to see history as directionless churn and tumult to be navigated as best as possible to avoid ultimate catastrophe. Germany and to a lesser extent parts of Western Europe grounded themselves in the former interpretation, while Israel and to a lesser extent parts of Eastern Europe clung to the latter. (Most countries outside of the West, of course, drew no moral conclusion whatsoever.)

For its part, the United States helped create the former world on the back of its own Cold War mythology, while (as Robert Kagan famously described it) toiling away in the ugly, dirty, “Hobbesian” world to make it happen. For the last 10-20 years, the pillars of that mythology have been showing strain, and after Obama and Trump, I’m suggesting something lasting has changed. I concede that America will never end up as ruthlessly Hobbesian as Israel, and that some kind of religious idealism will continue to shape its worldview. I suspect, however, that the moral certainties and forthright crusading spirit will not return.


You might be right that they won’t return. I have little doubt that I’m in the minority, and chances are I’m likely to continue losing the debate for some time. That doesn’t mean I won’t try—not because I’m sure I’m right, but because I believe that prioritizing values in U.S. foreign policy would make both America and the Middle East the better for it.

But I take some issue with the description of my position as being one of “moral certainty.” My position isn’t that there is some moral endpoint or that an arc must always be bending. Rather, it’s that in extreme and extremely rare circumstances, leaders should do what they can to overcome the inertia and public reticence that you rightly point to as obstacles. Syria, to me, was one of those cases. Let’s put aside the notion of some massive nation building exercise, which is not what most of us were calling for. If we could have just made it more difficult for Assad to kill people, thereby making the death toll less than what it ended up being, why not do that? That might be a moral argument (all political arguments are, in some sense, moral ones), but it’s not making a claim to moral absolutes or moral certainty.

I’d be more inclined to agree with you that the U.S. must accept the amorality of international affairs if neutrality was possible. But deciding not to intervene against the Syrian regime was itself a conscious, deliberate political decision, one with moral content and implication. It was not neutral, in part because it couldn’t have been neutral. This applies more broadly. The U.S. is already tipping the scale across the Middle East by stubbornly supporting authoritarian regimes, some of them quite brutal. In these specific cases, deciding not to “do” anything in the name of constraint or humility is not, in fact, a neutral posture. It effectively means staying the course—persisting in what was an already immoral position (one might call this the “prior moral content” argument). In short, doing nothing all too often means maintaining whatever the status quo happens to be.

Damir, you and I agree on a lot, or at least we share similar preoccupations with the darker side of the human condition, so it’s always intrigued me that we diverge as much as we do on this topic. (It was also the subject of one of my favorite Wisdom of Crowds episodes). And I don’t think we’ve quite figured it out yet. This is good news, because it means I’m already having some thoughts for future newsletter “issues.” Damir, you have been warned.