Can Pompeo Redefine Human Rights for the Trump Era?

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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the State Department in Washington. 

The announcement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that he has formed a new Commission on Unalienable Rights is being cited as one more reason to decry Donald Trump for busting norms and persecuting the worst-off. It is, The New Yorker wrote, an act of “unbelievable hypocrisy” for Trump to wrap himself in the mantle of human rights when he has violated them left and right, laid siege to a liberal international order founded on them, and embraced autocracy the world over.

It’s a natural response, but a closer look at the panel suggests that the criticism ought to fall on the symbolic politics of the commission, and our response needs to involve more than just championing the human rights Trump has been trashing, as if the status quo ante 2016 was working well.

It was remarkable, when Pompeo announced the commission at the State Department, how fulsomely he embraced the whole idea of human rights. It is a testament to the fact that—even under Trump—it is an idea that remains non-negotiable, something leaders must redefine in theory even when others suspect them of betraying it in practice.

Pompeo’s apparent worry, to judge from The Wall Street Journal op-ed he penned the day of the announcement, is what is known as rights “proliferation.” Specifically, he charged that, after the Cold War, rights advocates “turned their energy” to “new categories of rights.”

The commission’s very use of the word “unalienable,” which figured in America’s Declaration of Independence before falling out of general usage, trafficked in a founder fetishism that implied that it is the good old rights that matter, not newfangled ones or new claimants. And Pompeo doubled down on this nostalgia in his repeated shout-outs to 1776, and his admonition not “to discover new principles but to ground our discussion of human rights in America’s founding principles.”

Critics have understandably guessed that the goal is to emphasize religious freedom and free-market principles, treating abortion and LGBT rights as illicit, and possibly economic and social rights too. “In effect,” Masha Gessen wrote, also in The New Yorker, “the new commission will contemplate who is and isn’t human, and who, therefore, possesses inalienable rights.” Fetuses will be accorded rights, and the LGBT community stripped of them.

It’s a reasonable fear and something to watch. But the really significant thing about the commission may lie elsewhere.

For one thing, it looks like the commission will exercise no real power. Critics fear that its true purpose is to make an end run around other parts of the State Department, such as the legal adviser’s office and the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, but those departments are also run by Trump appointees.

For another, rights proliferation is an entirely mainstream and reasonable concern, backed by such august rights thinkers as Baroness Onora O’Neill, a British liberal philosopher and House of Lords member. If everything is a right, nothing is. If there are new rights, it is not obvious the old ones have the same currency. Finally, it is never totally clear what it means to call something a right to begin with—especially since most rights are not intended to function as trumps but rather signal that policymaking somehow ought to take account of the priorities that rights name. These questions will not go away. Indeed, the idea that they are already settled, through appeal to the authority, consensus, and orthodoxy of the human rights movement, resembles the Foundermania in which Pompeo indulged.

None of this means that Trumpian human rights ought not to be treated with alarm. But for now, the international consensus around human rights among transnational experts is simply too strong to allow this commission to magically shift it. Indeed, the response to Pompeo’s announcement, which reportedly surprised Foggy Bottom, proves how weak the commission is likely to be.

For that reason, it is more interesting to focus on what this move says about the conservative movement under Trump and its changing understandings of internationalism. And to understand that, it is critical to shift from Pompeo to the members of the commission he appointed.

“Human rights” have for decades, and for conservatives and liberals alike, described the values America should stand for in global affairs, especially in a world of despots. The founders announced a revolution to that world, but mainly to secure human rights for (some) Americans in their new state. Yet like liberals and conservatives for decades, the commission, originating in the State Department, presumes that human rights are already safe for the domestic politics of the United States, or someone else’s problem. Pompeo is not changing internationalist premise, and has no power as secretary of state to do so.

Before Trump, conservative internationalism has differed from liberal internationalism on details. Conservatives in the Cold War dithered about whether to support autocrats abroad but in the end, after the ascendancy of neoconservatism, embraced “democracy promotion.” As for American liberals, this has led them to idealize America’s global military ascendancy and to support many wars. And like those liberals, after a near miss under Jimmy Carter’s presidency when human rights were born, conservatives have embraced a vision of human rights abroad that ignores economic and social rights like the entitlement to a job or basic necessities—even though they were part of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights that Pompeo also invoked.

It is perfectly legitimate to resist militarism and neoliberalism, central fixtures of U.S. foreign policy for decades on both sides of the aisle. In fact, one might have thought that Trump, who ran as a kind of anti-war candidate playing on the economic stagnation of the rest at the expense of the rich like himself, would have raised doubts about what conservatives and liberals alike have taken human rights to be about. But no. A more debatable path for conservative internationalism is suggested by the commission’s membership.

Led by Mary Ann Glendon, the controversial Harvard Law professor and staunch right-wing Roman Catholic, the most interesting thing about the commission is not its inclusion of some house publicists of the interdenominational religious right, most of whom have (like Glendon) treated the “theocon” magazine First Things as one of their main outlets. Rather, it is the inclusion of others with links to the secular far right, or at least curious about it. Former New Left intellectual Russell Berman, along with his fellow German literature specialist David Tse-Chien Pan, both have spent lots of time working for Telos, the onetime New Left journal that since the 1980s has promoted the thinking of the European far right. As political scientist Joseph Lowndes has writtenTelos has a fascinating if small role in the American circles that led to contemporary far-right nationalism.

It is no more than a hint, in short, but the most fascinating thing about the commission’s membership is therefore that it appears to be a laboratory for new collaborations between the religious right and the secular far right. And in particular, it is a setting for experimenting with what the future of conservative internationalism should look like.

If it means, as commission member Peter Berkowitz wrote recently, that “a certain restraint is again crucial to conserving a free and open international order” after decades of promoting human rights abroad the wrong way, that is one thing. But there are other possibilities. If it means a conservative internationalism that, as Quinn Slobodian has argued, actually extends free trade while striving for racially and religiously homogeneous societies, conservative internationalism will look very different.

Ironically, neither the founders nor “natural law”—the favorite concept of several of the religious conservatives on the panel—will help it decide this dilemma on the right, which is the real story of Trump’s presidency when it comes to foreign policy. And much more is at stake than saving human rights from its new defenders in resisting the future conservative internationalism may have in store.

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