American Dream, Global Nightmare

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

When President Carter in 1977 attempted to establish human rights as a major component of United States foreign policy, he pointed to the Soviet Union’s treatment of dissidents as a gross violation of the integrity of the person and called for a world free from such governmental abuses. The Soviet Union, in turn, criticized the United States’s own violations and denounced Western concerns with human rights as a weapon used by the opponents of détente.

In American Dream Global Nightmare, Sandy Vogelgesang, a foreign-service officer and policy planner at the State Department, argues that, although important, “attention solely to crimes against the security of the person will not suffice” and maintains that a “broad” interpretation of human rights is necessary. Her “broad” view reference is to the range of human rights set forth in the United Nations Universal Declaration adopted in 1948 which includes not only a sustained commitment to a world free from governmental violations of the integrity of the person but also a world free from want of food, shelter, employment, health care, social services, and education—a world free to enjoy civil and political liberties.

The United Nations document is significant in that it is probably the first instrument to recognize human rights and fundamental freedoms of individual beings as a matter of legitimate concern for the entire world community. The Declaration, however, has limitations. It imposes no legal obligations on the part of member nations; it is only an acceptance of certain general standards, the implementation of which is left to the discretion of the participants. Since the vast majority of the member states cannot be considered free societies in that their citizens do not enjoy political and civil rights and since, more importantly, there is Soviet and Western disagreement over the significance and meaning of the human rights provisions, what can the United States realistically hope to accomplish in the field and what kind of foreign policy will advance this effort? Vogelgesang never really answers these questions; instead, she insists that one should promote human rights in a broad sense “because it is right in the fullest selfish and selfless sense of the word.” In her view, the handling of human rights should be a part of the continuing redefinition of national priorities. How these priorities are to be determined if standards conflict is not explained in this book.

When human rights are considered, two courses of action are possible, one attaches to the individual and inflicts prohibitions on government, the other is collective and requires a government to assert itself in a particular way. Although the United States has traditionally associated human rights with individual rights, the majority of the world’s nation states place a higher value on improved standards of living. For them food in stomachs and roofs over heads are far more important than guarantees of personal freedoms usually espoused as the preferred values in Western cultures.

The problems that have arisen from attempts to implement human rights to a global plan are attributed ultimately to differences between the Soviet’s and the West’s conceptions of the source, content, and beneficiaries of human rights. Vogelgesang is correct, therefore, when she states that promotion of human rights falters because of an alleged dilemma of definition.

As enunciated in Marxist-Leninist ideology, the source of human rights for the Soviets is the State, which is perceived as being the collective will of the people. Andre Vyshinsky, a Russian leader, expressed this clearly in his arguments before the U.N. General Assembly in 1948.Human rights cannot be conceived of outside the state; the very concept of right and law is connected with that of the state. Human rights mean nothing unless they are guaranteed and protected by the state; otherwise they become a mere abstraction, an empty illusion easily created but just as easily dispelled.

For the United States, the source of human rights is predicated on a natural rights philosophy which stresses that the individual, because he is a natural being, has certain inalienable rights that cannot be violated or taken away by anyone, any society, or by any law. These rights are presumed to be endowed by the Creator. Classic expressions of natural rights theory are reflected in the English Bill of Rights (1688); the American Declaration of Independence (1776); the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789); the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution (1791); and in the Universal Declaraton of Human Rights of the United Nations (1948).

Between the Soviets and the...

(The entire section is 1940 words.)