Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Human Rights and Public Diplomacy: What is Our Role in the World?

Michelle Crotwell Kirtley


May 18, 2012

By Michelle Crotwell Kirtley

Last month, human rights again made headline news through the dramatic events surrounding the escape of Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng, a vocal opponent of China’s “one-child policy” of forced abortion and sterilization.  The particular way in which these events unraveled—the involvement of the U.S. Embassy and Chen’s potential emigration to the United States—raise an important policy question: To what degree should the United States use its influence to promote human rights around the world and in China, in particular, and at what cost diplomatically?

Human rights abuses have long plagued our relationship with China, making the already complicated issues of currency devaluation, trade imbalance and nuclear non-proliferation in North Korea and Iran even more intractable.  In the foreign policy community, this debate is often described as an argument between the realists and the idealists, who, as New York Times columnist Bill Keller noted, can’t easily be placed into partisan categories.  Although most experts hold more nuanced positions, put simply, the realists view our economic and security interests in the region as paramount and see any public pressure on China regarding human rights as counterproductive.  The idealists view human rights as our highest moral responsibility in the world and our focus on our own economic and security interests as mercenary and selfish.  How, as Christians, should we make sense of it all?

Realism, at least the Machiavellian kind solely focused on our national self-interest, does not square with the picture of the sacrificial pursuit of justice portrayed in Scripture.  Meanwhile, the moral superiority that accompanies much of our idealism—particularly the idealism rooted in American exceptionalism, the idea that the U.S. plays an almost messianic role in world affairs—does not comport with the humility that the Gospel demands.  Another framework is needed to balance an appropriate concern for national interests with the love for neighbor that requires action on behalf of the oppressed around the world.

Here, it is helpful to return to first principles.  As the Center for Public Justice Guideline on Security and Defense states, “Government's responsibility, under law, entails the protection of the political community from those who threaten life, property, and public peace.”  Government is an institution ordained by God to “uphold just and healthy societies.”  Therefore, it cannot be immoral to view our economic and security interests as central to our foreign policy goals.  Indeed, it would be irresponsible to think otherwise.  But to meet the demands of justice, the U.S. should never pursue these interests at the known expense of others unless we are forced to choose between the lesser of two (or many) evils.   

Furthermore, any nation with influence in the world should, where possible with limited resources, pursue the common good for the global, interconnected community.  This moral responsibility is not rooted in American exceptionalism but is common to all nations who have wielded exceptional power in the world at a given point in history.  When such efforts extend beyond the diplomatic, they must be constrained by the just war principle that requires a reasonable chance of success.

Some have countered that, given our own checkered human rights record, the U.S. has no right to demand anything of China or any other country.  But the Gospel provides a response to these accurate accusations of hypocrisy: repentance and humility. Our government should press other nations to treat its citizens the same way we aim to treat our own.  But we should do so in humility and with respect, rather than out of a sense of moral superiority.  This may even include public apologies for the times we have failed to meet our own ideals. 

We must also recognize how difficult it is for our leaders to navigate the complex web of interests we have with China.  Thankfully, government is not the only institution in the world that exists to promote human rights; the sometimes abstract principle of institutional pluralism becomes helpful here. Much good has been accomplished through the church and through non-governmental organizations such as Women’s Rights Without Frontiers and All Girls Allowed, who can do and say more than our President can or should. 

Our government should use its influence prudentially to secure justice for those both inside and outside our own political community where possible.  But justice is not only the responsibility of government.  American Christians can support human rights around the world both through our political voice and through our involvement in communities and organizations working in whatever corners of the world—or  neighborhoods—God has placed on our hearts.

—Michelle Crotwell Kirtley is the Editor of Capital Commentary and a Trustee of the Center for Public Justice.


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”