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  • The New Challenges to Human Rights
  • Zbigniew Brzezinski (bio)

There is nothing more satisfying in life than to be associated with a cause in which one deeply believes that is also just. Perhaps there is one thing that is even better—and that is to be associated with a cause in which one deeply believes, which is just, and which is also a “winner.” That is how I feel about my involvement in the international struggle for human rights, and especially about my association with the National Endowment for Democracy. I have been on the NED Board of Directors for nine years, and I leave it with the same feeling that most of my friends in the Congress have about the idea of term limits.

During these nine years, however, there occurred a fundamental change in the world. We have closed a whole chapter—a critical chapter—in the history of our century. The central drama of this chapter was the struggle over human rights between democracy and communism, an ideology that challenged human rights directly. Our century was dominated by these two opposing ideological formations, which had altogether different concepts of society, based on altogether different concepts of the nature of the human being. Communism was based on the notion that by using force, and by eliminating unredeemable people, one could create a perfect society. The consequences of that belief, naturally enough, were massive repression, tremendous suffering, the destruction of freedom, and ultimately social and economic failure.

That is what the struggle was about, and these past nine years were [End Page 3] in effect the culminating years. Things came to a head, the scales of history tipped, and freedom prevailed in the contest with an ideology fundamentally antithetical to freedom. (Communism, of course, proclaimed itself to be a liberating ideology, but that proclamation was fundamentally false; it was a contradiction in terms.) So we have passed through a historical phase of enormous importance, and we successfully asserted the relevance and the primacy of human rights worldwide.

The Challenge of Culture

Today, however, we are at a stage when some new frontiers in the struggle for human rights will have to be crossed, and thus a new historical agenda confronts those of us who are committed to human rights. I defined the struggle that we have won as a contest of ideologies. The new struggle will involve not ideology, but culture. I think that culture is now going to be the dividing line in the debate over the question of freedom and the question of human rights. We are all familiar with the cultural argument. It rejects the notion of inalienable human rights, deriving from certain fundamental human aspirations and innate human proclivities, on the grounds that this notion merely reflects a very provincial Western perspective. It is only the West—it is said—that has cooked up these ideas, institutionalized them, formalized them, and proclaimed them.

According to the cultural argument, the ideas of human freedom and of the primacy of the individual are essentially parochial. They were initially confined to a small number of European countries, though they have also become enshrined and successful in countries elsewhere settled by Europeans. So there is this parochial segment of the world, consisting of Europe, North America, Australasia, and perhaps Latin America, that is somehow imbued with this perspective, falsely thinks that it is universal, and now is fundamentally on the historical defensive. This argument is being heard in many parts of the world; in Asia, it has been articulated very openly. We have all heard about “Asian values,” and how they are supposed to be different: the collectivity over the individual, harmony over dissent, hierarchy over choice. We are familiar with these concepts, which are being articulated not only in Asia, but also in our own society by some who say that the message of the West perhaps can be defended on other grounds, but that it is hypocritical for the West to argue that its message has a universal validity.

This argument poses a challenge to democracy and human rights that is as tough as the ideological one. In fact, in some respects it is even tougher, because...

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