Home | About Americans & the World | Search | Join Our ListServ | Contact Us

Global Issues >> Globalization


Promoting International Human Rights

A strong majority believes promoting human rights is an important priority for US foreign policy. The percentage saying it is very important rose at the end of the Cold War, then dropped sharply, and now has returned to the average level of previous decades. A very strong majority feels that--with the increased economic involvement that has come with globalization--the US should be more concerned with human rights in other countries. Majorities feel that promoting human rights serves US interests. Denying human rights is seen as leading to political instability.

An overwhelming majority says that promoting human rights should be an important priority in US foreign policy.

--Asked in the November 1998 CCFR poll, "How important a foreign policy goal should... promoting and defending human rights in other countries be?" 86% said that it should be a very (39%) or somewhat (47%) important goal. Only 10% said that it should not be an important goal. [1]

--Asked in a February 2000 Pew Center poll how high a priority "promoting and defending human rights in other countries" should be for US foreign policy, 83% said that it should be a top priority (28%) or some priority (55%), while just 15% said that it should be no priority. [2]

--In a February 2000 poll by Belden, Russonello and Stewart, respondents were asked to rate a number of policy priorities on scale of 0 to 10, with 0 being the very lowest priority and 10 being an extremely high priority. Asked about the goal of "Helping people in other countries obtain basic human rights," the mean response was 6.5. [3]

--In a June 1999 poll 44% said that human rights abuses should be a "principal concern" in US foreign policy, 37% said it should be "important" but "secondary to economic and security issues," while just 11% said they "should not be much of a concern"(Potomac Associates and Opinion Dynamics). [4]

--Asked specifically about "working to improve human rights for Asian citizens," 78% said that this was very (44%) or somewhat (34%) important for US foreign policy (Potomac Associates and Opinion Dynamics, June 1999). [5]

--Americans appear to feel fairly good about the quality of US efforts in regard to human rights. Asked to evaluate how good a job the US was doing in "fostering human rights in other countries," 78% said the US was doing a very good job (15%) or a good job (63%). Just 18% said it was doing a bad job (16%) or a very bad job (2%; PIPA, March 1998). [6]

There is evidence that the end of the Cold War brought some change to the public's evaluation of human rights as a priority. Since 1978 the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations has asked whether "promoting and defending human rights in other countries" should be a very important, somewhat important, or not an important foreign policy goal for the US. The percentage calling human rights "very important" rose at the end of the Cold War from 42% to 58%. In 1994 this percentage dropped to a low of 34%, but in 1998 it returned to the average levels of previous decades, at 39% (the same figure as in 1978). Throughout the period, only a small minority has said that human rights are not an important foreign policy goal. [7]

A strong majority feels that with the increased economic involvement with other countries that has come with globalization, the US has an increased responsibility to address human rights in those countries. In the October 1999 PIPA study of attitudes on globalization, respondents were asked "Do you think that as we become more involved economically with another country that we should be more concerned about the human rights in that country, or do you not feel that way?" A very strong 73% said they did feel that way, while 23% said they did not. [8] In the same poll, an overwhelming 90% agreed (66% strongly) with the statement that, "Because the world is so interconnected today it is important for the US (United States) to participate, together with other countries, in efforts to maintain peace and protect human rights." When PIPA asked this question in October 1993 88% agreed (51% strongly). [9]

Strong majorities also feel that promoting human rights in other countries serves US interests. In the October 1999 PIPA poll respondents were told: "Currently there is some discussion about whether it is important for America's self-interest to do something about cases in which human rights are being violated." Respondents were then presented two arguments in favor of the idea and two arguments against it, and were asked to rate each argument as convincing or unconvincing.

The arguments in favor did quite well. Sixty-three percent found convincing the argument that "When a minority is being deprived of its human rights, this often leads to political conflict and instability, which can spread and ultimately harm US interests" (35% unconvincing). Fifty-three percent found convincing the argument that "When a minority is being deprived of its human rights by a government that is supported by the US, this may lead that minority to use terrorism against Americans" (44% unconvincing). (This latter argument may have been less convincing because it could be interpreted to mean that the US should put pressure on Israel or deny aid to Israel for fear of Palestinian retribution against the US.)

Arguments against the idea that the US should take action in regard to human rights did not fare as well. Only 20% found convincing the argument, "The world is so big that we should not worry too much if human rights violations are being committed in distant parts of the world, because such things are unlikely to affect us" (79% unconvincing). However, respondents were evenly divided (49% convincing, 49% unconvincing) in response to the argument that "Some countries are major trading partners for the US. If we get involved in trying to promote human rights in these countries we may irritate them and we may lose their trade." (This latter argument may have been found more convincing because it may have brought to mind the debate about trade with China.). [10]

In the same poll, an overwhelming majority agreed with the idea that it serves US interests to participate in international efforts to protect human rights, among other objectives. Seventy-eight percent agreed that, "Because the world is so interconnected today, the US (United States) should participate in efforts to maintain peace, protect human rights, and promote economic development. Such efforts serve US interests because they help to create a more stable world that is less apt to have wars and is better for the growth of trade and other US goals." [11]

A strong majority also supports the idea that foreign aid can and should be used to help promote new democracies and thus human rights. In a January 1995 PIPA poll a robust 67% agreed (23% strongly) that:

Foreign aid to newly democratic countries is a good investment for America. Democracies are more stable, have better human rights, and are more likely to be friends with the U.S. (United States). Foreign aid improves these new democracies' chances of success. [12]

Polls have also found support for the idea that violations of human rights create a threat not only to US interests, but to international security. A June 1994 ATIF poll asked respondents to evaluate "various kinds of actions by national leaders of countries or factions" and "rate how serious a threat to global security these things are." Asked about "Leaders who grossly violate human rights, including torturing and murdering their own citizens," a very strong 72% rated this as extremely (44%) or very (28%) threatening. Another 22% found it somewhat threatening and just 6% found it not at all threatening. [13] A March 1991 ATIF poll also found 91% saying that a "dictator…who violates human rights, including torturing and murdering his own people" poses an extremely (58%) or very (33%) serious threat "to international security and the United States." (This number may have been especially high given the poll's proximity to the Gulf War.). [14]

A June 1995 ATIF poll also asked about the benefits of using US military capabilities for "stopping a country from gross violations of human rights, like murdering its own citizens." A strong majority (64%) said that it would benefit our allies as much as ourselves, while 18% said it would mainly benefit ourselves. [15]



Report Contents