A mere thirty-three years ago, on January 20, 1977, Jimmy Carter inaugurated his presidency by proclaiming from the Capitol steps, "Because we are free we can never be indifferent to the fate of freedom elsewhere…. Our commitment to human rights must be absolute." Most people had never heard of "human rights." Except for Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a couple of passing references, no president had really mentioned the concept, and it never had gained much traction around the world either. Carter’s words sparked an intense debate at every level of government and society, and in political capitals across the Atlantic Ocean, about what it would entail to shape a foreign policy based on the principle of human rights.
The concept of rights, including natural rights, stretches back centuries, and "the rights of man" were a centerpiece of the age of democratic revolution. But those droits de l’homme et du citoyen meant something different from today’s "human rights." For most of modern history, rights have been part and parcel of battles over the meanings and entitlements of citizenship, and therefore have been dependent on national borders for their pursuit, achievement and protection. In the beginning, they were typically invoked by a people to found a nation-state of their own, not to police someone else’s. They were a justification for state sovereignty, not a source of appeal to some authority—like international law—outside and above it.
In the United States, rights were also invoked to defend property, not simply to defend women, blacks and workers against discrimination and second-class citizenship. The New Deal assault on laissez-faire required an unstinting re-examination of the idea of natural rights, which had been closely associated with freedom of contract since the nineteenth century and routinely defended by the Supreme Court. By the 1970s, rights as a slogan for democratic revolution seemed less pressing, and few remembered the natural rights of property and contract that the New Deal had once been forced to challenge. Carter was free to invoke the concept of rights for purposes it had never before served. (Arthur Schlesinger Jr. once called on future historians to "trace the internal discussions…that culminated in the striking words of the inaugural address." No one, however, yet knows exactly how they got there.)
It looks like Carter was an exception in another sense. He inaugurated the era of human rights in this country, but now it seems to be fading. Bill Clinton dabbled in human rights while outlining a new post–cold war foreign policy, but the Democratic politician now in the White House has spurned them. Few developments seem more surprising than the fact that Barack Obama rarely mentions human rights, especially since past enthusiasts for them like Samantha Power and Anne-Marie Slaughter have major roles in his foreign policy shop. Obama has given no major speech on the subject and has subordinated the concerns associated with human rights, such as taking absolute moral stands against abusive dictators, to a wider range of pragmatic foreign policy imperatives. As his Nobel remarks made plain, Obama is a "Christian realist" inclined to treat human sin, not human rights, as the point of departure for thinking about America’s relation to the world’s many injustices and horrors.
The rise and fall of human rights as an inspirational concept may seem shocking, but perhaps it is less so on second glance. Ever since Carter put human rights on the table, Republican presidents have found uses for them too, typically by linking them to "democracy promotion" abroad. There is no denying the powerful growth of nongovernmental organizations in the United States and around the world that has occurred since slightly before Carter’s time, and impressively ever since. But George W. Bush, placing himself in an almost equally longstanding tradition, invoked human rights as the battle cry for the neoconservative vision of transforming the Middle East and beyond—at the point of a gun, if necessary—perhaps sullying them beyond recuperation. Obama seems to think so. If their current abeyance is surprising, perhaps it’s because of a historical mistake: the belief that human rights were deeply ingrained in American visions of the globe in the first place.