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Chapter 1 Introduction: American Exceptionalism and Human Rights M I C H A E L I G N AT I E F F Defining Exceptionalism Since 1945 America has displayed exceptional leadership in promoting international human rights. At the same time, however, it has also resisted complying with human rights standards at home or aligning its foreign policy with these standards abroad. Under some administrations, it has promoted human rights as if they were synonymous with American values, while under others, it has emphasized the superiority of American values over international standards. This combination of leadership and resistance is what defines American human rights behavior as exceptional, and it is this complex and ambivalent pattern that the book seeks to explain. Thanks to Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, the United States took a leading role in the creation of the United Nations and the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.1 Throughout the Cold War and afterward, few nations placed more emphasis in their foreign policy on the promotion of human rights, market freedom, and political democracy. Since the 1970s U.S. legislation has tied foreign aid to progress in human rights; the State Department annually assesses the human rights records of governments around the world. Outside government, the United States can boast some of the most effective and influential human rights organizations in the world. These promote religious freedom, gender equality, democratic rights, and the abolition of slavery; they monitor human rights performance by governments, including—and especially— the U.S. government. U.S. government action, together with global activism by U.S. NGOs, has put Americans in the forefront of attempts to improve women’s rights, defend religious liberty, improve access to AIDS drugs, spread democracy and freedom through the Arab and Muslim worlds, and oppose tyrants from Slobodan Milošević to Saddam Hussein. 1 Stephen C. Schlesinger, Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations (New York: Westview Press, 2003); Mary Ann Glendon, A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (New York: Random House, 2001). M IC HA EL IG NATI EF F 2 The same U.S. government, however, has also supported rights-abusing regimes from Pinochet’s Chile to Suharto’s Indonesia; sought to scuttle the International Criminal Court, the capstone of an enforceable global human rights regime; maintained practices—like capital punishment—at variance with the human rights standards of other democracies; engaged in unilateral preemptive military actions that other states believe violate the UN Charter; failed to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women; and ignored UN bodies when they criticized U.S. domestic rights practices . What is exceptional here is not that the United States is inconsistent, hypocritical, or arrogant. Many other nations, including leading democracies , could be accused of the same things. What is exceptional, and worth explaining, is why America has both been guilty of these failings and also been a driving force behind the promotion and enforcement of global human rights. What needs explaining is the paradox of being simultaneously a leader and an outlier. While the focus of this book will be on human rights, exceptionalism is also a feature of U.S. attitudes toward environmental treaties like the Kyoto Protocol as well as the Geneva Conventions and international humanitarian law. Since the attack of September 11, it has been accused of violating the Conventions as well as the Torture Convention in its handling of prisoners at Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, and other detention facilities. This pattern of behavior raises a fundamental question about the very place of the world’s most powerful nation inside the network of international laws and conventions that regulate a globalizing world. To what extent does the United States accept constraints on its sovereignty through the international human rights regime, international humanitarian law, and the UN Charter rules on the use of force? To what degree does America play by the rules it itself has helped to create? In this book, we do not revisit wider historical and sociological debates about why Americans have seen their society as exceptional at least since the Pilgrim Fathers, or why America has been exceptional in its absence of a socialist movement.2 Nor is this another discussion of American uni2 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. and trans. Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Chicago: University of Chicago Press...


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