Must We Defend Human Rights Everywhere?

John Allen Gay asks whether it makes strategic sense for the US foreign policy to concern itself with how other countries treat vulnerable minorities:

Those who advocate a prominent role for human rights in American foreign policy usually embrace a common argument—that disrespect for human rights at home is a warning sign that a country will promote instability beyond its borders, while countries pushed to respect human rights will behave more constructively. Thus, for instance, the Rwandan genocide was followed by a bloodletting throughout the African Great Lakes region, with the Rwandan government (drawn from the side of the victims) an active sponsor of violence in neighboring states. Thus, Saudi Arabia rules repressively at home and supports Islamic extremism abroad. Thus, Nazi Germany went from Kristallnacht to launching a continental war and an international campaign of genocide.

Yet human rights remain separable from international aggression.

Even a human-rights-free approach to international security is plausible—for example, if the United States were to ignore domestic human-rights violations altogether, but respond forcefully and resolutely to aggression across borders, the world would surely not come to an end. And human rights certainly deserve a role in U.S. foreign policy. Our closest allies share our values; relations with allies that don’t are testier and more reversible. We would like to think of ourselves as a force for good in the world, and our global leadership is strengthened when other states see us as a lawful, fair and generally benevolent power. Yet that doesn’t mean that we must make human rights a central priority, and it certainly doesn’t mean that we should be willing to put vital interests like stopping the spread of nuclear weapons on equal footing with them.