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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

Americans Want Values-Based Foreign Policy

Surveys of Americans reveal that they want the United States to advocate for human rights abroad. Even when voters disagree on priorities, they believe the United States should advance fundamental freedoms. In a tight election, speaking to this voting block, which spans from center-right to center-left, could tip the scales.

In particular, many of these surveys demonstrated consistent and solid support for values-based foreign policy. Looking at China specifically, in 2021, the Pew Research Center surveyed views on relations with this rising adversary. A staggering 70 percent of respondents supported the United States’ promotion of human rights, even if it hurt the bilateral relationship with China. While this survey focused narrowly on American relations with one country, China is America’s main geopolitical competitor; one with expanding economic power and an increasingly belligerent military. Regardless of these circumstances, Americans wanted their values carried into that complicated and fraught relationship.

In 2022, a national survey conducted by HarrisX with the George W. Bush Institute and Freedom House sought to understand public perceptions of human rights issues at home and abroad. Their poll found high interest in supporting democracy and human rights globally, across issues and territories. Specifically, 61 percent of voters expressed support for supplying weapons and other aid to Ukraine, while 59 percent favored U.S. government officials visiting Taiwan (even if this results in heightened diplomatic tensions with China) and 54 percent believed the U.S. should support activists in Iran. David Kramer, the Bush Institute executive director and former State Department human rights assistant secretary, said the results demonstrate “that the U.S. remains committed to the cause of freedom around the globe.”

Skeptics of a rights-based foreign policy, at least as a strategy for garnering votes, may run counter to the most recent Pew Center survey released in April that showed smaller margins. Only 26 percent of respondents wanted to emphasize human rights as a top priority in foreign relations. However, even accepting these smaller margins, the results show a sizable number of Americans support advancing human rights-related issues in an election year.

However, it is also important to look deeper into the survey. While human rights ranked lower than other issues, foreign policy topics with significant human rights dimensions garnered strong support: about 50 percent of respondents wanted to limit Russia and China’s influence, while over 35 percent supported similar approaches with North Korea and Iran. These are four of the biggest human rights abusers on the planet, working to subjugate their own people and export that oppression abroad. Though Human Rights Watch doesn’t rank countries by human rights record, their steadfast documentation demonstrates this reality (see here, here, here, and here). 

Differences did emerge between voting blocks from each party. Looking at party affiliation, Pew found different priorities along party lines. But again, Pew research demonstrated that issues related to human rights in places like Israel, Ukraine, Iran, and China, all matter significantly to one group or the other.

Voters will want to hear more. Promoting human rights abroad is viewed as consistent with American values of equality and civil rights, as well as U.S. security interests in a stable and prosperous world. Promoting these values bolsters America’s reputation and influence on the world stage while expanding fundamental freedoms for all. Many Americans view the United States as a beacon of freedom and democracy and want that light to shine brightly.

Both presidential candidates can point to specific actions, but neither has enunciated a clear vision for promoting human rights abroad during their campaign. President Biden has identified genocides to an unprecedented extent and has spoken repeatedly about defending democracy from attack at home and abroad. But these have been in reaction to violence or Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. During his presidency, Donald Trump emphasized protecting international religious freedom in unprecedented ways, though also while promoting alarming Muslim bans and restricting refugee resettlement.

There is an opportunity to fill a void. The long Republican tradition of American leadership abroad would make this obvious for Mr. Trump. However, his skepticism of international alliances, his sharp and worrisome rhetoric, and his core base’s isolationist outlook makes such a shift unlikely.

Mr. Biden, based on his speeches and worldview, is more likely to set forth a plan for human rights . However, he should go beyond “defending democracy” to set forth a vision for how his administration would concretely lead on human rights in a second term. It should include ensuring the appointment of a human rights assistant secretary at the State Department and a commitment to quickly filling transition vacancies, increasing funding for human rights programs, continuing to fight for human rights at the United Nations and in other fora, laying out a strategy for working with like-minded countries against oppressive regimes, advocating for persecuted religious minorities and religious freedom, and assisting human rights defenders, among other actions. Such a statement could also put forward a long-term plan for Gazan reconstruction, Palestinian independence, and Israeli security.

November’s election results may hinge on a few thousand votes in key states. The findings from the surveys above show how many Americans in both parties want the United States to advocate for human rights abroad. Abandoned Nikki Haley voters would likely gravitate toward a message centered on values-based foreign policy. The recent sample poll conducted by The Liberal Patriot and Blueprint with YouGov showed how “Standing up for free speech and freedom of religion” mattered to them. Consequently, human rights-related issues should garner greater election-year attention.

It is also smart policy. Promoting human rights reflects American interests and values. By championing human rights, the United States can strengthen alliances, foster goodwill, and promote reform in regions where human rights violations occur. If consistently raised with friend and foe, U.S. human rights diplomacy can deter violations and promote stability. Addressing human rights abuses can prevent conflicts from escalating and reduce the likelihood of extremism and terrorism.

From my 20 years of human rights diplomacy, I have seen how the United States is an indispensable actor on the world stage when it comes to defending human rights. While we are not perfect, many Americans remember the decisive role of the United States in defeating tyranny in World War II and our effort to improve our union through the Civil Rights Movement. We are proud of these achievements, and they have shaped our collective consciousness about the importance of standing up for human rights. The hard lessons learned (and ones we are still learning) align with fundamental principles of justice and dignity, which can benefit others. A world rocked by violence and mass atrocities needs the United States.

Overall, the American public’s consistent concern for human rights in foreign policy reflects a combination of moral imperatives and historical experiences. It reflects who we are and who we want to be—our national identity. Politicians would be wise to take note.

Over his 20 years of service in the U.S. government, Knox Thames held several key positions advocating for human rights and freedom of religion or belief, including at the State Department and on two different U.S. government foreign policy commissions. Known for his nonpartisan approach to advocacy, he was appointed by both the Obama and Trump administrations as the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South / Central Asia at the State Department. The first to serve in this special envoy role, he received a civil service appointment to lead State Department efforts to support religious minorities in these regions.​

In April 2023, Knox joined Pepperdine University as a Senior Fellow, directing the new Program on Global Faith and Inclusive Societies from the Washington, D.C. campus. In addition, since 2020, he has worked as a non-resident Senior Visiting Expert at the United States Institute of Peace. Both positions are possible thanks to the Templeton Religion Trust. His book "Ending Persecution" (Notre Dame Press) will be released on September 1.

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