Foreign policy tends to be complicated and messy. International issues create an explosive imbroglio mixing economic, political, and security controversies. Human rights upsets almost every calculation since America’s friends can be even crueler than its foes.
The Trump administration cared not at all about humanitarian issues. Political prisoners were only convenient weapons, useful against adversaries but forgotten with allies. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s cynicism was exceeded only by his sanctimony when it came to the issue.
Members of the Biden administration care more about such issues but have little credibility to preach to the world. The president and most of his top officials were drawn from the Obama administration, which aided the murderous Saudis in their aggressive war against Yemen. The Obama retreads supported radical jihadist insurgents against Syria’s Assad government. U.S. officials refused to call Egyptian Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s coup a coup. And they supported a gaggle of America’s “usual suspects,” allies which killed and jailed opponents with equal aplomb.
In fact, the Obama administration made little pretense about supporting human rights. Its claim to have entered Libya’s civil war for humanitarian purposes was a shameful fake and fraud. Muammar Khadafy was a dictator, but contra the administration he had massacred no civilians and his threats of future retribution were directed against combatants. Nevertheless, the Obama administration misled China and Russia into approving a UN resolution which authorized an operation to protect civilians – and used the opportunity to impose regime change. It was cynical Trumpism before Trump.
Moreover, the practical difficulties in promoting human rights are enormous. Some advocates seem to believe that the president merely need pronounce his or her judgment and humanity will rush to comply. However, that isn’t the way of the world. History didn’t work that way during the early American republic, Cold War, or unipolar moment. And it certainly doesn’t work that way now.