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Remembering Pat Derian, human rights activist

Undoubtedly, few readers will remember this name, yet she was the chief architect of American foreign policy during the Carter Administration, 1977 – 1981. She was neither Secretary of State, nor a member of the National Security Council. Her background was exclusively domestic, as an activist for civil and voting rights for blacks in Mississippi and the deep south. Carter appointed her as Assistant Secretary for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, and, after her death in 2016, noted how she was responsible for the fact that “ …countless human rights and democratic activists survived that period, going on to plant the seeds of freedom in Latin America, Asia and beyond.”

Advocating for human rights

Derian (née Murphy) was controversial from the beginning of her tenure and came under fire often as opposed by the Reagan Administration and the views of Henry Kissinger and other “realists,” who advocated ties with violators of human rights and the priorities of Cold War survival. As a member of the Reagan Administration, I fully understood the need for global allies against the spread of Soviet Communism. Under the tensions of that time period, it was appropriate to appreciate the necessity for strong and dependable allies against the notion of a crusade to punish them for their culture and history. Argentina came under special scrutiny for its notorious “dirty war” against dissidents, including dropping them to their death from airplanes. Argentina was a reliable and needed ally in Latin America against the spread of Castro-Communism, and national security took priority over “foreign policy as social work.”

This was appreciated, and Derian remains a controversial personality, especially after the demise of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the American “superpower.” Yet, that was long ago and it might just be possible to re-examine the role of human rights in a post-Cold War world and the legacy of Patricia Derian. It could be more lasting than previously believed.

It would be hard, indeed, to demonstrate how Pat Derian changed the fundamental nature of oppressive regimes around the world. To the extent that she, and the Carter Administration, did it was decidedly short-lived. Nor should we expect a single official in a one-term political regime to have had any lasting impact upon either human nature or political science. The lasting effect of the Reagan Administration in ending the Soviet Union and the world Communist threat was, by comparison, much more significant. Nevertheless, Pat Derian may still be looked upon as a symbolic figure reflecting the nature and character of the American political faith and the eternal virtues of a foreign policy based primarily on these qualities.

Idealism vs. realism in foreign policy

In his seminal study of the nature of American values in foreign affairs, Walter McDougal (University of Pennsylvania) separated the American approach into two essential parts. His book, Promised Land, Crusader State (1997) noted that the original approach was “a city upon a hill,” when American values were confined to represent political virtue without the need for overseas conversion. The second approach, associated with Woodrow Wilson and World War I, emphasized a more vigorous and aggressive mandate to export these values wherever they were lacking, whether they were welcomed or not. Given “superpower” status, a “city upon a hill” is no longer a position for American values in foreign policy.

There is something admirable about policies advanced by virtue, as opposed to the “Old World” emphasis on political “realism” or reason d’etat. Yet, at the same time, there is also something onerous about one set of values being imposed against a foreign culture that, by definition and history, has never known nor desired to be converted into another’s image. As repetition and practice has demonstrated, the effort has, more often than not, led to long-term failure and bitter and lasting legacies. But those are tactical failures, not strategic. Like Wilson himself, his vision was admirable; his politics were abysmal.

Since the end of the Cold War, 1991, it is fair to say that U.S. foreign policy has — overall — lacked an essential purpose or demonstrative vision that, in the past, has captured the imagination and political appeal that goes beyond the borders of North America. Calls for a “new world order,” “nation-building,” “globalization,” “leading from behind” and other catch-phrases have failed to dent a society fully absorbed by domestic priorities and a variety of home-grown “isms.” President Trump’s call to make America “great again” sounds mighty but implies the decline of purpose (“again”) and implies equally a return to self-absorption (isolation).

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

So where does Patricia Derian fit in? By the same token, where does the Universal Declaration on Human Rights fit in? Signed by all countries in 1948, the document spells out, in thirty articles, the basic “rights” that all societies, and all their citizens, have by birthright. In philosophy, this is “Natural Law.” The Declaration is the embodiment of the ultimate purpose behind the Second World War and, essentially, the reason for the United Nations in the first place.

It also happens to reflect the liberty and justice that formed the United States of America and the basic reason why American soldiers fought and died, from Saratoga, to Gettysburg, to Normandy Beach.

Two American women stand out in this regard: Eleanor Roosevelt, the U.S. delegate who shaped the document in 1948 and Pat Derian, who represented the same principles during the Cold War. Today, in a period of great confusion, dissension, and division, it would be prudent for an American President to dedicate the country behind principles that reflect the heritage, not only of the country but of the two women that kept the “fire” alive.

Foreign policy today

President Trump has been criticized for his harsh attitude toward foreign populations and leaders alike. He has even been taken to task for demanding that NATO allies honor their financial commitments. It would be a welcome diversion if this same behavior could be directed against the near-universal violations of “basic human rights” that visit the planet every waking moment. In this respect, his instinctive personality would, at last, serve a purpose worthy of the country he leads, including the human rights pioneers who represented it when he was out selling buildings.

It matters less that tyrannies are not converted overnight; and it matters more that we keep trying. In this time of crisis and confusion, America needs to stand up — and be counted!

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