The American Crisis, written by Thomas Paine, originally published from 1776 to 1783 during the American Revolution. (Wikimedia Commons)

The American Message of Human Rights

March 13, 2023


In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Melanie Kirkpatrick advocated for a change in our government’s approach toward North Korea’s nuclear threats and totalitarianism that was proposed in a National Institute for Public Policy study. After 30 years of using international law and multilateral instruments to try to convince the regime of its irrationality, a more effective approach would be to put information in the hands of North Korean citizens that could precipitate its collapse. Kirkpatrick likened such a policy to the Reagan administration’s focus on human rights, which hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union. But it has a much older pedigree, being consistent with how the American Founders approached the challenge of promoting human rights abroad, an approach of even broader historical impact.

The intellectual contours of the Founders’ human rights strategy were baked into the political philosophy that drove the Revolution. Endowed with a largely Calvinist skepticism of pretensions to religious and political authority, the Revolutionary generation of Americans had studied and internalized the principles of liberty and republicanism, as well as an empirically-oriented, detached perspective on the foundations of law, and how, in practice, the laws of societies can change. In the tired categories of contemporary international relations discourse, “idealism” and “realism” had not, in their thinking, emerged as contradictory approaches.

Aaron Rhodes is a senior fellow at Common Sense Society, and president of the Forum for Religious Freedom-Europe. He is author of The Debasement of Human Rights (Encounter Books, 2018).

Originally published in Law and Liberty.

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