Throughout the history of modern U.S. diplomacy, America's foreign policy has frequently been torn between two competing and often overlapping tensions: protecting U.S. national security interests and upholding America's values, particularly as they relate to human rights and democracy promotion. Navigating these two occasionally incompatible impulses has been the bane of many a president's time in office.
But you might never know such a tension existed if you just listened to the way politicians talked about U.S. foreign policy on the campaign trail. More often than not, those seeking America's highest office are troubadours of human rights and cynical of any decision that might put "interests" ahead of doing the "right" thing.
Just this month, the values vs. interest debate reared its head again in the one place where it consistently has for much of the past 20 years: China. As U.S. officials -- from Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, and U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke, all the way up to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- worked feverishly to end a diplomatic imbroglio over the case of Chen Guangcheng, a blind Chinese dissident who had holed up in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, Republicans took pot shots at Barack Obama's administration for failing to take a stand with the better angels of American nature.
Indeed, when news stories began trickling out that the Obama administration had forced Chen to leave the U.S. Embassy, Republican candidate Mitt Romney offered a rather restrained statement of displeasure, calling it a "dark day for freedom" and "a day of shame for the Obama administration." According to Romney, "We are a place of freedom, here and around the world, and we should stand up and defend freedom wherever it is under attack."
While Romney's campaign literature talks about the need to balance U.S. interests and values, this latest attack is very much at pace with Romney's rhetorical broadsides against the president. According to the Republican standard-bearer, Obama just isn't that interested in defending American values around the globe. On Iran, he did nothing, claims Romney, as the mullahs wiped out the pro-democracy Green Movement. On Syria, Obama was slow to react and stop the bloodletting. The result, says Romney, is that Obama has turned the Arab Spring into an "Arab Winter." Just last week he argued that the right direction on foreign policy "is to communicate our strength, our determination, and to indicate that if people want to be friends with America, that they're going to have to hold to the principles that we find dear."
Romney, like many a presidential wannabe, talks a tough game on human rights. But don't believe a word of it. All presidential candidates, whether Democratic or Republican, prioritize human rights when running for president -- less so when they actually reach the office.
More often than not, a new president finds himself coming down on the interests side of the equation. Remember candidate Bill Clinton attacking George H.W. Bush in 1992 for meeting with the "butchers of Beijing" after the Tiananmen Square massacre? Several months later, once ensconced in the White House, he backed down, granting China most-favored-nation trading status.
Jimmy Carter ran on a platform of restoring human rights to a prominent place in U.S. foreign policy, and as president he took important steps in that direction. At the same time, however, he found himself torn in knots on the need to protect U.S. interests in the Middle East and Latin America, further détente with the Soviet Union, and recognize communist China -- all the while maintaining his pledge to make human rights a foreign-policy focus of his administration. By the end of his presidency, he was moving in a more militaristic, anti-communist direction.