Episode 190: Why Media Insists the US is “Forced” to Commit Human Rights Abuses

Citations Needed | October 4, 2023 | Transcript

Citations Needed
51 min readOct 4, 2023
U.S. President Joe Biden (right) shakes hands with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (left) and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi (center) during the G20 Leaders’ Summit in New Delhi on Sept. 9, 2023. (Credit: Ludovic Marin/AFP)


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

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Nima: “Realities have forced us to remain on diplomatic terms with several dictators,” the Pampa Daily News stated in 1958. “U.S. ambassador to the U.N Samantha Power has been forced to look the other way as [Saudi Arabia] does as it pleases in Yemen,” Politico told us in 2016. “Biden is being forced to accept the flaws of America’s friends,” claimed The New York Times claimed earlier this year, 2023.

Adam: For decades, we’ve heard the same excuse regarding US foreign policy: Our leaders might not agree with the world’s dictatorial, reactionary governments, but they’re forced — by some unknown geopolitical dark matter of realpolitik— to support them for some broader, more noble goal.

Nima: Strengthening ties with the governments of Saudi Arabia, India, Egypt, Israel, The Philippines, and other countries under right-wing, human-rights-abusing governance might be a bit unpleasant, sure, but it’s the pragmatic thing to do, and therefore, the morally acceptable thing for the United States to do.

Adam: But countries that are not the United States or its allies are never said to be “forced” into carrying out human rights abuses or supporting those that do. They back bombings, ethnic cleansings, the oppression of women for the sport, for the lolz, because they are existentially evil. No outside mysterious entity ever “forces” them to have to make compromises on the altar of “reality.”

Nima: But there is nothing, of course, “forcing” these decisions on our own Western leaders, and in nearly every case, they’re simply extensions of preexisting geopolitical relationships, imperialist policies, arbitrary might-makes-right governance.

Adam: On today’s episode, we’ll discuss the media narrative that the U.S. is “forced” to maintain long-beneficial alliances with right-wing regimes, looking at how this suggestion falsely presents the U.S. as an unwilling, but ultimately helpless, participant in repression of human rights around the world.

Nima: Later on the show, we’ll speak with James Peck, Adjunct Professor of History at New York University. Founder of the Culture and Civilization of China project at Yale University Press, he has written for The New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications, and is the author of a number of books, including Ideal Illusions: How the U.S. Government Co-Opted Human Rights, which was published in 2010 by Metropolitan Books.

[Begin clip]

James Peck: We, in this country, don’t discuss our domestic problems in terms of human rights. Presidents of the United States don’t say, ‘Oh, we’re committing human rights violations with migration.’ Senators don’t speak the language of human rights about domestic U.S. The New York Times doesn’t speak it that way either. And this is a notable way in which the U.S. protects itself. We speak of human rights violations, the United States overseas, but not domestically, we’re practically the only country that doesn’t apply it to ourselves. We speak of our ideals. We speak of living up to our ideals, or when we fail to do so we say, ‘Oh, we haven’t lived up to the best of who we are.’

[End clip]

Adam: To start, as we typically do with a little history, the narrative that the US. is reluctantly forced into doing bad things with baddie countries and oppressing human rights and women’s rights and snuffing out left-wing movements, because they have no choice, is an idea that goes back quite a while. At the dawn of the 20th century, primarily in Latin America, the Pacific islands and the Caribbean, the U.S. began contradicting its nominal values of universal human rights and began to support oppressive regimes for pretty obvious reasons. The same reason every other country a colonial country did. For an early example, let’s look to the Pampa Daily News, a newspaper in Texas, in February of 1958. The article extolled the virtues of the FDR administration’s Good Neighbor policy, an ostensibly anti-interventionist stance for U.S. relations with Central and South America. That, of course, didn’t last very long. It was officially abandoned in 1945. The article said,

Thus as a democratic friend rather than an imperialistic guardian, The United States has contributed to South American progress for more than a quarter of a century.

The article goes on to absolve us of any responsibility for propping up dictators globally, especially in Latin America, suggesting the superpower had no choice. It stated,

Political and economic realities have forced us to remain on diplomatic terms with several dictators who have arisen during that period. But this policy was simply recognition of conditions that we could not control. To have opposed them actively would have meant military intervention, or boycotts that would have antagonized the temporarily supine populace.

Supine populace is pretty good colonial writing.

Save for a few inept individual Ambassadors and Ministers, there was no warm official attitude towards them.

So, they supported the right-wing regimes, but did so with a heavy heart. That made them sad.

Nima: Well, they simply simply had no choice. I like how this article literally says, ‘conditions, which we could not control’ as if we hadn’t already been overthrowing governments in that part of the world.

Adam: Well, the CIA had been paying off journalist and newspaper editors and local clergy.

Nima: Right, exactly. So here’s another example, this from the Chattanooga Times on April 6, 1960, an article discussing Rafael Trujillo, the U.S.-backed dictator, who ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 until his assassination in 1961, a year after this article came out. So, prior to Trujillo’s rule, the U.S. had been occupying the Dominican Republic from 1916 to 1924. And Trujillo was part of that occupying force, trained by the U.S. military. Yet the Chattanooga Times in 1960 told its readers this:

The United States is caught in the middle. Trujillo opponents say the dictator is a creature of the United States. They hold that recent visits by U.S. Navy ships tended to shore up his regime. Those who support the dictator including Americans with businesses in the Dominican Republic, say he should be kept in power to prevent chaos.

Adam: So, again, ‘we have no choice.’ ‘Forced to do it to prevent chaos.’ This, you know, this reminds me a lot of my favorite line in 24, where every time Jack Bauer has to torture someone or kill someone who’s innocent, he always has the line, “I didn’t have a choice.” And it’s always, like, the most perfectly American way of viewing the world. ‘I did this awful thing, but I had no choice, no choice forced to do it reluctantly.’ And it’s important that when they do it, they look sad.

Nima: Yeah, no, exactly. I mean, everything kind of tracks back to the famous FDR quote about the United States supporting the Nicaraguan dictator, Anastasio Somoza Garcia, the quote that I’m sure many people have heard, “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” And that really just drives this entire genre of media, of punditry saying like, ‘Well, hey, look, you know, the world is the way it is. And yeah, you know, we wish this weren’t the case, but things being as they are, at least we’re supporting the dictator for a good reason, an American reason, and not because simply we want to, which is why we’re sad about it.’

Adam: Yeah, so this idea of the reluctant human rights abuser, or as a last resort or something you were forced by “realities” to do would continue until the ‘90s. There was a debate forum in the Lansing State Journal from 1990, which gives us probably one of the all-time Citations Needed Hall of Fame headlines. It was a debate over whether or not the U.S. should back dictators like Manuel Noriega and Nicolae Ceaușescu, and the Shah of Iran, and whether or not this was consistent with America’s nominal values, and Dr. William Taylor and Michael Mazarr, from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, our favorite weapons contractor-funded think tank that we kind of did a whole show on, their kind of the ultimate place you go to launder America’s chauvinist ideology. They wrote this headline for the Lansing State Journal debate. This may be my all-time favorite Citations headline we’ve ever had. I don’t say that lightly.

Nima: It’s a really good one.

Adam: At least top five, really good. It says, “Support of Dictators Promotes Democracy.”

Nima: Just —

Adam: An all-time gambit.

Nima: Yes, chef’s kiss beautiful. Beautiful.

Adam: Nothing Orwellian about that. It would go on and open to say,

Our intervention in Panama focused renewed criticism on U.S. role in bringing Noriega to power in 1983-84, and more broadly on the alleged U.S. practice of supporting authoritarian governments that serve U.S. interests. The image of unflagging U.S. support for brutal rights violators, however, seriously distorts the historical record. And in fact supporting (mild) dictatorships —

Nima: [Laughs]

Adam: Not making that up.

Nima: It literally, in parentheses, says mild before dictatorship.

Adam: [Laughs]

— and in fact supporting (mild) dictatorships in the short run sometimes is the best way to help make democracy possible in the long run.

Adam: By CSIS this measure of course, you expect dictatorships are fine. As long as they’re mild. It’s unclear what that means.

Nima: They’re not too spicy.

Adam: Yeah, right. The piece would go on to say,

History quickly explodes the myth that the United States mindlessly supported many of the late 20th century’s dictators, we have been quick to turn against them when their reputation soured.

e.g. when they were no longer of media utility.

Chiang [Kai-shek] in China, Batista in Cuba, Somoza in Nicaragua, the Shah in Iran, and others all fell, at least in part, because the United States abandoned them.

That’s not true at all.

Americans tend to believe that their own experience with democracy is easily transferable to other nations, but it is not. Many developing states remaining incapable, economically or [wink wink] culturally, of maintaining full-fledged democracies.

Nima: That’s right. They’re not ready for it.

Adam: Right. So, this is a great CSIS line. It’s actually kind of a very nakedly cynical thing that they’re writing, which is that like, ‘Yeah, we support them, but we sort of do so with a heavy heart,’ which is a theme you’ll see throughout this show. But it doesn’t, you know, for the person on the other end of the Saudi prison sentence, or the Palestinian getting their city block liquidated by American F-16s. It’s not really clear how much having a heavy heart really matters. That doesn’t really translate any kind of material change.

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: Even if it is true, which it’s not really true —

Nima: Thanks for being sorry, but it doesn’t really do anything.

Adam: Right, again, because they have to square the circle, right? There’s this self image, right, we’ve talked about on the show a lot, but it bears emphasis here, of the U.S. as a promoter of democracy and human rights. No one outside the Beltway and a handful of publications in the United States and the UK, no one really believes that. This is something that has zero credibility, certainly no one in any other country believes that. To the extent to which the U.S. does back pro-democratic forces, it’s largely incidental or randomized, because it suits some other geopolitical need. It is certainly not the animating ethos. Again, we could list the examples, but our friends at CSIS just did it. They have to square the circle, right? They just square the self image with reality. And the way you do that, typically, is just by avoiding the issue. But when you’re forced, as it were, to bring it up, and this is something we’ll get into with the way Peter Baker covers the Biden friendliness with the Modi regime in India and MBS, the Saudi regime, is they always have to say, ‘Oh, they’re forced by circumstances,’ because it’s the only way you can reconcile the cognitive dissidence,

Nima: Geopolitics being what it is has forced our hand.

Adam: Right, versus other countries who do it because their Bond villains, right, who they have no realpolitik to consider.

Nima: And just to note that the article that Adam was just quoting was written by members of CSIS the think tank funded by the U.S. government and many major U.S. corporations here, attributing even the fall of dictators, to U.S. finger-wagging, to the loss of support when those dictators became less popular, less helpful to U.S. interests, that that’s kind of what helped them fall and leave power — not, say, the popular fucking revolutions in the countries that they were dictators of, overthrowing them, whether it be China, Cuba, Nicaragua, Iran, the ousting of these right-wing U.S. puppet governments, here all the credit due also to the U.S. So, we’d be remiss not to highlight be wildly racist, and obviously ahistorical assertion in that article, as well, that the “developing states,” are “culturally” incapable of establishing democracies. This is another line that is used constantly, the idea that there are some societies that can handle democratic rule and some just can’t. They are primitive thinkers, they need a strong man, they need an authoritarian hand.

Adam: And it’s either gonna be us, or some pro-Soviet guy, so let’s, yeah…

Nima: Yeah, right, exactly.

Adam: And this would continue, of course, up until the 2010s and 2020s. In a 2016 article for Politico magazine, Samuel Oakford insisted that Obama and his UN Ambassador Samantha Power were, “forced” to support Saudis brutal extermination of the war in Yemen, writing,

For the United States, it was another reminder of what an uncomfortable ally the Saudi kingdom can be… No one has become more familiar with this awkwardness than the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, the erstwhile human-rights icon (author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Problem from Hell) who has been forced to look the other way as a powerful U.S. ally does as it pleases in Yemen with political, logistical and military cover from Washington

Adam: So, Samantha Power is being “forced to look the other way,” not clear by whom not clear who is forcing them to support. Then, of course, that’s contradicted by the very next clause. She’s not looking the other way. They’re actively supporting it with political, military, and logistical… It’s not cover, it’s support. This is also a popular trope — that, to the extent to which the U.S. says it kind of looks the other way, but the U.S. doesn’t look the other way while Saudi Arabia bombs and destroys Yemen, a war, which by the way has a ceasefire, but it’s still very much ongoing with the blockade, cutting off medical flights out of Sanaa and leading to lord knows how many excess deaths, that this is not a thing we’re overlooking, this thing we’re actively participating in. Human Rights Watch released a report showing that the Saudis’ border security was just mowing down Ethiopian refugees, just doing death squads, going in and just shooting people and killing them and leaving him in the middle of nowhere, sometimes the middle of desert. It was a pretty explosive article, the Biden White House has known about it for a year the New York Times revealed. And, of course, this was part of the “defensive security partnership” that Biden codified with Saudi Arabia when he came into office in 2021. This is the domestic “defensive security” and so the U.S. wasn’t just standing by while Saudi forces mowed down Ethiopian immigrants, refugees seeking a better life inside Saudi Arabia, they trained them and funded them. The border security is trained by the US military.

Nima: The U.S. is not some, like, hapless bystander, which also would be ludicrous and still not justified. But, of course, the U.S. is a very active partner here.

Adam: We have to square the circle. Samantha Power has built a brand of being a human rights champion.

Nima: Exactly.

Adam: And so when she’s defending Saudi Arabia at the UN —

Nima: She has to do so with, not only a heavy heart, but with U.S. interests, of course, in mind. ‘We have to make these tradeoffs, right?’ I mean, this narrative about American administrations and Saudi Arabia goes back decades and decades, but even in the present day, we see this with regard to the Biden administration. Joe Biden, over the years has, yes, issued some superficial critiques of Saudi Arabia and its government. During his presidential campaign in 2020, Biden vowed to make the Saudi government “pay the price and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are.” This, of course, in response to the then-relatively recent murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which was ordered at the highest level of the Saudi government by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. But Biden has also then met with Saudi royals since, namely, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, MBS. In order to sustain security and economic ties between the two powers. Media have taken a page from the same old playbook, excusing Biden’s visits by claiming he simply had no choice but to cozy up to a dictatorship in order to moderate “skyrocketing oil prices.” Here are just a few examples of this from June of 2022. From the Financial Times, June 3, 2020, this headline, “Biden forced into Saudi thaw amid rising oil prices. Meeting with Crown Prince would cement U-turn for a US president who labeled kingdom a ‘pariah.’” Here is an excerpt from that article,

Amid skyrocketing oil prices and record inflation at home, the US president — who had once characterised [sic] the ‘battle between democracies and autocracies’ as the central guiding principle of his foreign policy — has been forced into a sharp U-turn.

Adam: Now, of course, there was no U-turn. It’s the same policy. It’s just there was rhetoric on the campaign trail, doesn’t mean anything.

Nima: Of course.

Adam: Rhetoric is utterly meaningless. The policies remain the same. That’s the first thing that Biden came in, he approved an $650 million arms sale package in Saudi Arabia. So, it’s not clear where that U-turn is supposed to have happened, except from some campaign rhetoric in 2019, when he was trying to not totally piss off progressives in the primary race.

Nima: But then you get this from the same article talking about how, although Biden has been a skeptic, I like that term, a skeptic of the Saudis long before MBS was around, you get this line, which is paraphrasing something said by Daniel Shapiro, former ambassador to Israel during the Obama administration, who is interviewed for this article. It says this:

But Shapiro, a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council, said the White House had to make an unsentimental choice in order to add oil supplies to the tightening global oil market and to ensure Riyadh supported hardening American approaches to both Russia and China.

I love that unsentimental choice. Realpolitik, Adam. We just got to do what we got to do.

Adam: Well, Saudi Arabia used to fund the Atlantic Council. I don’t think they do anymore, but I think until Khashoggi they did, and of course they’re funded by a Who’s Who of weapons contractors, and the United Arab Emirates, etc. So it’s like, yeah, just the reality. It is like, Well, what happens to all the fucking smug handwringing about authoritarianism that the Atlantic Council does every 10 minutes?

Nima: It didn’t really matter.

Adam: Because, again, it’s like, when you do this whole sales pitch of ‘authoritarian versus democracy,’ this kind of cheesy, Cold War dichotomy that a lot of people just eat up because they don’t really, you know, they’re mush brains, it sort of sounds good. And if you don’t really, if you sort of don’t squint too hard, it sounds about right. You set yourself up for these obvious like, Well, wait a second.

Nima: Yeah, well, and so this led to a raft of other articles. The New Arab on June 5, 2022, with this, “The global energy crisis has forced Biden to focus on building a relationship with Riyadh.” Three days later, in Politico, June 8, 2022, “‘Pariah’ no more? Democrats grit their teeth over Biden Saudi trip. The president’s Middle East reset raises human rights concerns for some fellow Democrats, others are prepared to get pragmatic.” This from Bloomberg the next day, June 9, 2022, “Soaring oil prices forced Biden to engage with Saudis he’d spurned.” And then this from the following month, July 17, 2020, a Max Boot original Washington Post opinion piece headlined, “Cut Biden some slack. U.S. presidents have to deal with dictators,” in which he wrote this,

If the United States won’t support the Saudis, Russia and China will — and they will care far less about human rights than we do. There is a great deal that the Saudis can do to further U.S. interests, from raising oil production (which would help bring down inflation and weaken Russia) to recognizing Israel (which would lessen regional tensions and buttress the alliance against Iran).

Adam: Again, there’s literally no logic there that can also be applied to Russia or China. It is the idea that we have to ally with dictatorships to change them from the inside. Of course, there’s no empirical basis, there’s been no actual meaningful reforms. Just this week, as we’re recording this, Saudi Arabia executed a person who had criticized them on Twitter and he had 37 followers. So it’s not clear what the U.S.’s inside-outside strategy, Serpico “change ‘em from the inside” is supposed to do exactly. Obviously, it’s just a pretext, it sort of sounds good. This is kind of what Max Boot, who can who famously wrote a piece in 2001, called, “The Case for American Empire,” that we sort of need these cheesy kind of moral narratives for liberals who are kind of half paying attention because it sounds good. ‘If we don’t do it, Russia or China will.’ Again, this has been in the logic of all empires. I think we’ve mentioned this on the show once before, but if you read Joseph Conrad’s comments about British imperialism. You know, he wrote this great Heart of Darkness, this scathing critique of Belgian imperialism in Africa. And then he also had contemporaneous comments defending British imperialism, saying it was preferable to Belgian imperialism. And that’s why he’s supported British imperialism in Africa. And then if you ask the Belgians, if you asked King Leopold II, he’d say, well, the reason why they were in Congo in Africa was because the Arab slave traders were coming down and they were better than their slave traders. We can do this all day. Right? All imperialism can be justified by some other imperialism, which is supposedly worse. And this is the kind of realpolitik last line of defense, where they have no other argument, they can’t possibly justify why they’re giving arms and weapons funding and military support for a country that has completely decimated Yemen or apartheid in Israel. So what they say as they say, ‘Well, if we don’t do it, some other empires gonna do it. And they’re worse than us somehow.’ Because it’s all that’s left, right? It’s the only pseudo kind of sophistic argument you can make. And this is kind of what every time Biden has to prostrate himself at Saudi Arabia, which he did last June. This is the inevitable argument that hacks like Max Boot trot out, because there is no other argument. There’s nowhere else to go to square the circle.

Nima: One of the most fun parts of this, though, is then looking at other Max Boot articles from years past, because four years earlier, in October of 2018, Boot wrote, also in the Washington Post, an article with the headline, “Yes, the U.S. sometimes supports warlords and dictators. So when should we stop?” And the when we should stop is with MBS and with Saudi Arabia, in the wake of the murder of Khashoggi, which, at that point, I guess, at that point, frustrated Max Boot, who of course, was Khashoggi’s colleague at the Washington Post. And so then, I guess, ‘We support dictators, but there’s a limit.’ And apparently, that limit has kind of run its course, because Max Boot is now again saying, “Eh, it’s okay. What are you gonna do?’

Adam: ‘Eh, it happens. You know, I’m a court stenographer, I’m a court propagandist, and the president needs to do something, so I’m gonna come in and spend some bullshit for again for wealthy liberals who read the Washington Post editorial board and kind of need to sleep at night.’ And we saw this again as recently as June of this year with Biden this embrace of Modi in India. Biden hosted India Prime Minister Narendra Modi in June of 2023 at the White House with a lavish star-studded state dinner. Just for some context, Modi is a Hindu nationalist who has stripped India’s only Muslim majority state Kashmir of its autonomy. He was even banned from entry into the U.S. between 2005 and 2014, after the riots in the state of Gujarat in 2002 resulted in the deaths of approximately 1000 people, mostly Muslim. Modi was Chief Minister of Gujarat at the time. So, cut back to the present day in June of 2023. The New York Times article about this lavish state dinner, and the run up to it, was headlined, “In Hosting Modi, Biden Pushes Democracy Concerns to the Background,” wasting no time giving Biden an excuse in the subheadline, The New York Times would write, “The president who declared ‘the battle between democracy and autocracy’ to be the defining struggle of his time has concluded that he needs to accept some imperfect but important friends.”

Nima: [Laughing] Oh, it’s so good.

Adam: Reporter Peter Baker, who’s, again, we’ve criticized on the show quite a bit, so he may not need an introduction, kind of the ultimate power lapdog, wrote,

Mr. Biden has concluded, much as his predecessors did —

Right, so it’s bipartisan, so it’s okay.

— that he needs India despite concerns over human rights just as he believes he needs Saudi Arabia, the Philippines and other countries that are either outright autocracies or do not fit the category of ideal democracies. At the time of confrontation with Russia and an uneasy standoff with China, Mr. Biden is being forced to accept the flaws of America’s friends.

Nima: He just had to grow up a little bit.

Adam: He just had to grow up, he’s being forced! Again, this is what they always do. They tried out the big bad Chinese, the big bad Russia, to “force” us to also partner with dictatorships. And it’s done, so — and this is the most important part — that they feel a sad about it, that they feel bad about it. That Biden goes home and he wakes up at 2am and he turns to his wife, and goes, ‘Dr. Jill, you know, I’m feeling really bad about this, sending more weapons systems to people who cut off people’s hands and behead Shia minorities and treat women like third-class citizens, and bomb Yemen back to the fucking Stone Age, I’m feeling really bad about it.’ And it’s important that you know, they feel bad about it, and Peter Baker wants you to know they feel a sad about it. Again, all of this is just solipsistic babble, like, we have no way of knowing if it’s reluctant, the reporters are doing a bunch of theory of mind, they sort of doing it with a heavy heart. There’s no way of verifying it. None of this is material. None of this is fair or falsifiable or verifiable, or remotely material. It’s just a bunch of psychologizing. Because that’s what you do when it goes, again, this is the important distinction when the U.S. does a bad thing. It has to do so as a last resort, because it’s forced to and it has no choice.

Nima: Somehow we’re always at the last resort, though, like that’s the thing. None of this has changed over so many decades.

Adam: Right, because again, you have to square the circle of this cheesy ‘democracy versus autocracy’ binary, that the White House, that, well, frankly, the entire liberal establishment and neoconservative establishment has used this to justify why we have 800 military bases around the world. That, sort of, you need a moral justification for that or it really doesn’t work. And the way you do that is we’re global democracy cop. So, when we partner with dozen or so dictatorships that fly in the face of this, and suppress their internal dissidents and left wing movements, that needs to have a rationalization, and there’s pretty much a bag of four or five you can always use, one of which is, you know, ‘had no choice,’ ‘they’re going to turn to China and Russia,’ which is worse, which are these kind of great moral, cul-de-sacs.

Nima: There’s always just so much handwringing, that, you know, gets us back to what Rich Whitney wrote about in 2017 in Truthout, which is that the United States provides military assistance to roughly 73% of the world’s dictatorships. This is not something that just, you know, ‘well, you know, sometimes you just have to make tough choices.’ Apparently, the same choice is made over and over by the United States. And with regard to Russia, we see this as well. In April 2022, writer Robert D. Kaplan, former senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, wrote in Bloomberg, regarding the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, this article headlined, “To Save Democracy, We Need a Few Good Dictators,” which contain this subheadline, “Biden is wrong: People in developing nations want stability, efficient government and personal freedoms more than the right to vote every few years.” So, boiling down democracy purely to electoral politics, not a larger ideological thing, which granted, I’m not saying is the best thing in the world. But I think that Robert Kaplan would say it’s the best thing in the world, just not for some people. It’s not necessary for people in developing nations, as he writes, who really just want stability, efficient government, and some personal freedoms thrown in.

Adam: Which is convenient, because, again, this whole thing is so pat, it’s logic is circular. It’s a fundamentally unfalsifiable claim, which is to say in circular and its reasoning, which is, like, if you could paint every single time the US backs a dictatorship, again, whether it be Azerbaijan, whether it be India, whether it be Israel, whether it be Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, whatever, if you could always say ‘they had no choice because of realpolitik,’ then how do you disprove that they do it for cynical ‘might-makes-right’ reasons, as everybody engages in and supports anti-democratic currents, because obviously, everybody does it because they do it for self-interest. So if it’s for the USA’s self-interest, then it’s just the thing everyone else does. Really, it’s, you know, what’s more likely, that the U.S. is this kind of Jack Bauer character is forced into these trolley problem situations where you have to decide between ripping off a guy’s testicles or killing 300 people who are stuck in a, you know, in an airplane? You know, one of these sort of ridiculous tough decisions we have to make. Or is the U.S. just doing the thing that every other country does (or every other major power does), but needs propaganda for it to, like, which of those is more likely? That we’re getting a kind of reverse-engineered, very fuzzy, kind of, vibes-only narrative about being forced to do something and they’re just doing what every other major country does, or does the U.S. really, genuinely, constantly have to be forced into doing these things by this geopolitical dark matter?

Nima: Well, of course, because we have these entrenched values, Adam, that we never stray from, until we be grudgingly are forced to.

Adam: But if you’re constantly straying, “straying” from them by sending a billion dollars in arms, then what are the values to begin with?

Nima: Oh, it’s a good question. And what we will unpack more with our guest, James Peck, Adjunct Professor of History at New York University. He is the founder of the Culture and Civilization of China Project at Yale University Press has written for the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle among other publications, and is the author of a number of books, including Ideal Illusions: How the U.S. Government Co-opted Human Rights, which was published in 2010 by Metropolitan Books. He will join us in just a moment, stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by James Peck. Jim, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

James Peck: Glad to be here.

Adam: We spent the last 30 minutes or so discussing the media trope of the Biden administration, just for one example, being “forced” into participating in human rights abuses in other countries, and being partners with those countries that engage in human rights abuses. We think it’s a curious formulation that exposes many of the contradictions inherent in the ‘U.S. as champion of human rights and democracy’ line that is part of the self-image and, for lack of a better term, imperial brand of the U.S. The asymmetry of this concept is the first thing that comes to mind. Of course, countries that are not the U.S. or its allies, we are told, do bad things for the lolz or because they’re kind of ontologically evil, for sinister might-make-right advantage, kind of purely Machiavellian terms. But the U.S. always does bad things when it Capital I, Capital H, Capital N, Capital C, ‘It Has No Choice,’ or because of realpolitik, which is sort of one of these great thought-terminating clichés you throw out when you want it to paper over rank hypocrisy. I want to begin by discussing this framework, what is the sort of geopolitical dark matter, in your estimation, forcing the world’s most powerful country to continue its 80-year partnership with the Saudi Arabia and 70-year partnership with Israel, just for two examples to start with.

James Peck (Credit: Nina Subin)

James Peck: Well, I think in a basic way, there’s not been an enormous transformation in terms of geopolitical considerations since the end of the Second World War. Yes, there are shifts in global policy. Yes, there are shifts in global strategy. Are there shifts actually taking place in terms of evaluation in terms of American foreign policy works? Probably not. In other words, when you go back to the origin for the Cold War, you already see the dichotomizing of economic and political rights, you see the dynamics of the notion of a ‘free world’ versus the Communist world. And what was the free world? The free world was a part that could be organized, but not all of its parts had to be free. That’s a conception that I think comes out with the Human Rights transformation after Vietnam. It’s true, human rights language emerges with the United Nations after 1945 and the covenants, most of which the United States has never ratified. But the language of human rights domestically in the United States didn’t really emerge until the late ‘60s. And when it did, it was partly because, I think, of Vietnam and to some degree issues of immigration of the Jews of the Soviet Union, but significantly for a way to reconstitute America’s image after the Vietnam War. And part of that was, you couldn’t have a conception of aligning with countries that were as repressive, at least as they saw appeared, as they did in the Cold War. So Vietnam is a very critical touchstone. But there’s a very notable aspect to all of this that I think is usually overlooked about human rights. When the language really emerged in the Carter administration, we’ll get to that later, there was a lot of calculation about how it would be undertaken and the ways that would be most effective. But one element that’s always been critical is, we in this country don’t discuss our domestic problems in terms of human rights. Presidents of the United States don’t say, ‘Oh, we’re committing human rights violations with migration.’ Senators don’t speak the language of human rights about domestic U.S. The New York Times doesn’t speak it that way either. And this is a notable way in which the U.S. protects itself. We speak of human rights violations, the United States, overseas, but not domestically. We’re practically the only country that doesn’t apply it to ourselves. We speak of our ideals, we speak of living up to our ideals, or, when we fail to do, so we say, ‘Oh, we haven’t lived up to the best of who we are.’ But when other countries committed what we delineate as human rights problems, we say, ‘Oh, that’s who they really are.’ So, the ideals and the way of formulating things, domestically, is a very strong protective shield that has been there. That goes back to the Cold War. But it’s critical to see just how human rights has been employed and the consciousness that was behind its formulations. And, as one side note, it’s always struck me as interesting when we say, ‘the Biden administration or somebody else is being forced into partnering with human rights abusing countries.’ How about the other way around? How about countries that feel they’re having to be forced into dealing with the United States and have a whole series of obligations, needs and interests, with all of its human rights violations? And that usually isn’t.

Nima: For obvious reasons. Yeah. I mean, I love this idea of certain language that is reserved for, like, external communications, as opposed to, then, internal communications. It really has like a kind of stark PR feel to it.

James Peck: And I think it’s critical, in this context, and the emergence of human rights, that it did not focus in its emergence on Vietnam. Nor did it focus in any way on a systemic evaluation of American power coming out of Vietnam. In many ways, it was deflection from it. And his Carter’s people said, this was our way with human rights to restore the credibility, post-Vietnam, post-Watergate. And it was a conscious strategy, that I don’t mean to certain people didn’t believe in certain aspects of it. But America was seen as a ‘rights-based nation.’ But they didn’t go around saying ‘we’re a human-rights-based nation.’ And it was a very thoughtful analysis that was able to appeal to the Right and to the Left. To the right: anti-Communism, the focus on the Soviet Union, the focus on Jewish immigration; and to the Left, or to the left-of-center, shall we say: people who were concerned about what happened to Allende in Chile. One of the first early committee hearings was by people who were looking into what had happened to Allende and the American role in his overthrow. And the Church Committee in those years, which was looking at CIA operations, in the mid-‘70s, was also very much a part of this desperate effort, I wouldn’t say desperate, a very concerted effort to find some alternative way, when the old anti-Communism had clearly disintegrated and the conception of working with dictatorships had to be somewhat assuaged, except as you point out, in acute situations like the Saudis.

Nima: Well, yeah, well, how do you think the carve-outs have worked? From, you know, over the years, right, there’s an obvious reason why, say, Israel is called ‘the only democracy in the Middle East,’ because then you get to be like, ‘Oh, well, you know, on a human rights scale, well, they’re democratic, at least. So you know, I mean, apartheid aside, there are a “rights-based nation, too.’ Saudi Arabia is a trickier spin to make. But, you know, both of the relationships that the U.S. has with those countries, and I mean, of course, others like UAE, et cetera, put into stark focus this human rights language, because there always need to be carve-outs that somehow still fit into this, ‘Well, you know, we’re just doing what we are “forced” to do, because we’re just realists here.’

James Peck: Well, that’s certainly true. Usually, they want to spin it in various ways. And as you said, maybe as a democracy, in some cases, a little harder to spin the Saudis that way, but think of it with another context. If you go back to somebody like Stephen Douglas before the Civil War. One of his questions was, how does a country that genuinely has a relatively free press live with slavery? How does a country that considers itself democratic do the is horrendous things? Whether a country is democratic or not, may be quite irrelevant to the kind of human rights abuses it commits. And it’s certainly, I think, the case with the United States. We use democratization, which is that phrase that Ronald Reagan particularly emphasized, to overcome and to deflect from these deeper questions. For example, Jimmy Carter, if you put it really simply, Jimmy Carter comes along with human rights. Ronald Reagan comes along and says — originally, of course, he was very critical of it — but then he said, ‘Oh, we have to democratize.’ By that means we have to help build democracy in other countries, which means that many of the things the CIA used to do — civil service groups, influencing newspapers, funding opposition parties, which was once done covertly — will now be done overtly as part of democracy building, as he said. And then Clinton comes along, and he says, ‘well, all that’s good. But now we have humanitarianism as well, which also requires massive significant penetration of other societies.’ So, there’s never really a questioning of power, all of which could indeed go back to Vietnam, but quite the reverse. It’s a way of moving towards a deepening involvement, which is parallel with the rise of neoliberalism at the same time, in the ‘80s and ‘90s. And again, what we see is sort of a continued transformation within an underlying dichotomization that’s always been there, between pursuit of certain economic interests and the ways we’re going to try to explain it politically and ideologically.

Adam: So, I want to talk a little bit about this concept of negative rights versus positive rights or liberal rights versus economic and labor rights. It’s been called different things. Basically, the difference between rights that protect you from government overreach and governments doing things to you and positive rights, the thing that the government does for you: health care, schooling, clean water infrastructure. What we argue in the show, well, what we argue at the top of the show, and I think the theme is that they’re both important. That we are not opposed to liberal negative rights. It is just curious when we only get what is traditionally called more capitalist-friendly, negative rights, more kind of Whig liberal rights, versus that which requires economic redistribution. And indeed, you note, that the founder of Human Rights Watch said quite explicitly that those groups you said, “tended to decry a state rolling, distributed or any sense of economic democracy at all the concept of human rights.’ According to the founder of Human Rights Watch, ‘The rejection of the idea of economic and social rights reflects the commitment to democracy, not for its own sake, but because it is preferable in substance to what we can expect from platonic guardians.’ The general idea is that he said he would go on to say that economic rights were inherently authoritarian, which is to say, things like health care, basic living standards, infrastructure, etc. And I want to talk about this distinction, because it’s a subtle one I think a lot of people don’t pick up on, but as I think, actually very, very important, and a theme we kind of return to generally because countries that don’t provide, you know, for example, half a million homeless people, for example, that is not in a country with quite a bit of wealth, right, I think it’s fair to say more than enough wealth to house everybody, that is not seen as authoritarian, that is not seen as oppressive. But, in our in kind of normal liberal discourse if a bunch of undergrads protest Charles Murray from speaking in Middleton University and they prevent him from speaking, that’s a form of authoritarianism, right? So it’s like free speech, even in a non-state context, is seen as sacred. But living in fear of poverty is not. I want you to sort of talk about that distinction, and how I know that, you know, initially in the United Nations Human Rights declarations, there was economic rights, and then they kind of subtly went away and fell out of favor with the popular human rights discourse,

James Peck: I think when one has to look at here is, this was a basic thrust coming out of the Cold War. If you go back, let me read you a line from FDR.

The hours men and women worked, the wages they received, the conditions of their labor — these had passed beyond the control of the people, and were imposed by this new industrial dictatorship… For too many of us the political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality. A small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor — other people’s lives. For too many of us life was no longer free; liberty no longer real; men could no longer follow the pursuit of happiness.

Now that’s FDR, accepting the Democratic nomination for a second term. That’s the kind of language that disappears at the beginning of the Cold War. If you look at FDR, in 1944, he offers what he calls the Economic Bill of Rights. And his whole point, in that language that is completely overlooked almost ever since, is that without economic strength, economic support, jobs, Medicare and the rest, you do not have political freedom. Now, human rights drew upon that, but really the Cold War was built upon destroying that link, which I’m not saying it was the dominant by any means, but it was certainly a very prominent one with a New Deal and FDR. And part of the Cold War in its initial stages was, yes, the beginning of mobilization on anti-Communism, but it was also the resurrection of the reputation of big business, which had taken an extraordinary drubbing in the Great Depression, and during that period in which it was affirmed that the government had direct responsibilities, not just for political freedoms, but for basic sustenance and well-being of people. Which is, indeed, as you suggested, that was the second aspect of the UN Covenant on Social and Economic Rights, which the U.S. has always refused to ratify. Indeed, we have only ratified two of the UN covenants. We didn’t ratify the one on children. We didn’t ratify the one on women, there’s a whole list of them we don’t ratify. The only one we really ratified was the political and civil one, which could be used in part for political warfare. And I’ve always been struck in reading even some of the early national security documents for the presidents and general strategy. And you look at some of the really overarching ones, in the late ‘40s and early ’50s and they’ll go through, and they’ll say, ‘what’s the purpose of the United States?’ I go through this with my students, and they list four or five things and you say to yourself, ‘don’t they know what the purpose of the United States is?’ But when you look at them, you don’t find the word equality, you don’t find the word community, what you find is the word political, individual freedoms and free enterprise. And so, from the very beginning, it’s very much structured into that. The problem is, by the time of Vietnam, that no longer sounds terribly progressive. Human rights becomes a kind of substitute for Cold War structures in the context of Vietnam. And, of course, we have a much more media-oriented world, we have television. Vietnam was a television war, and that had consequences. And the idea was, how do you come out with a much more progressive sounding language, and also one they felt would be effective against the Soviets, and perhaps, to some degree, restrain certain extreme repressive regimes from going too far.

Adam: Yeah, I want to talk about that real quick. There is this idea of earnest true believers within that system. Without getting too much into the kind of trap of trying to guess people’s motives, you mentioned either in your book or an interview, I forget which one, I apologize, but basically saying that a lot of the early human rights discourse, obviously, Amnesty International founded, I think, in early ‘60s, Human Rights Watch, which was originally Helsinki Rights Watch in the late ‘70s, they were more overtly Cold War, that there’s a belief with a lot of the earnest up-and-coming types that you can change the system from within, you can do the kind of Serpico routine where you use Empire as a mechanism as a weapon for advancing liberal causes and liberal rights. And then eventually, along the way, the very, I think generous reading, right, maybe even not as cynical as the reading we’ve been given at the top of the show, is that those forces get slowly co-opted, because there’s a kind of inertia for want of a better term towards the path of least resistance, right, kind of water on pavement will go to the lowest point. So, the easiest things to pick off are going to be designated enemy states of the U.S., because that’s where the funding is, the political emphasis, etc. And going after America’s enemies, is in a way, becomes kind of maybe more performative, or kind of token. But it’s not like you said, not putting those existential terms, right? I think of when King Abdullah, the dictator of Saudi Arabia died in 2015, Human Rights Watch had the now kind of infamous headline of “Saudi Arabia King’s Reform Agenda Unfulfilled.” So he, when he dies, his reform agenda was simply unfulfilled. He was working on it, he didn’t quite get around to doing 99% of it, but he just needed a little more time, a little more time. And so, when it’s the U.S. or allies, it’s this kind of very, it’s not existential, as you as you talked about. So, can you talk about this kind of the ways in which, for what, again, I hate using this term, because intentions don’t really matter ultimately, but this kind of way in which good intentions, can become co-opted very quickly, and historically have become co opted quickly and then kind of morphed into this ersatz Cold War device.

King Abdullah with Barack Obama in June, 2010. (Getty)

James Peck: Well, I think co-opted, yes. But it’s important to realize the degree to which the Carter administration felt that human rights lacked an appropriate intellectual foundation, that it needed massive support, in terms of think tanks and scholarships and conferences and ways of promulgating those concerns, that human rights was beginning to emerge, and that the U.S. was willing to trade off between occasional criticisms it would get, from a far more sweeping analysis that it would be able to employ against its foreign critics and people it didn’t like. Now, I think one of the things to remember is, the original human rights organization was not American, it was British. It was Amnesty. Believe me, they knew that. They didn’t want the preeminent institution and human rights organization to be Amnesty. And Amnesty’s approach was somewhat different — prisoners of conscience is something that American institutions never particularly got into in the human rights community. There are differences we don’t have to go into here. But Amnesty was also much more hesitant about getting involved in the internal affairs of other countries, apart from prisoners of conscience.

Adam: Well, talk about prisoners of conscience, because there you write about that and the liberal limitations of that as well, if you wouldn’t mind.

James Peck: Well, one of the most striking ones is, it goes back to what we’ve been discussing about political and economic, which is the means of struggle to get something. So, Nelson Mandela could never be a prisoner of conscience, because he advocated there had to be times violence would be used in the struggle in South Africa. And that made him outside that parameter. So, in other words, certain kinds of revolution, radical transformation, the divide was right there. The covenant in the UN, social economic rights, does not say that. What it does say is, if all other alternatives are not allowed, you have the right to revolution. And that is something that human rights groups, of course, have not said. Now and within that, when one points out various ways in which human rights groups are advocating certain kinds of change, one has to remember the U.S. also wanted certain kinds of change. They wanted economies more open, they didn’t want repression to be too extreme, they didn’t want women’s rights to be too trampled on. All these were complications for them. But that doesn’t mean that this was the priority of the geopolitics. But it was certainly an element of their self-appraisal, and was always critical about this approach is a certain self-idealization. But we came to, at the beginning, when we were talking about the USA, ‘well, we, you know, we have these compromises we sometimes have to make,’ but it’s really a self-idealizing way of saying, ‘Oh, but this isn’t who the U.S. really is, what it’s really about.’ I mean, if you want to delineate and go into what the U.S. does in foreign policy and domestic policy, it’s quite a list. But also one other element here: human rights, by and large, takes no stand on invasions of other countries. It takes no stand on war. If you look at Dr. Martin Luther King’s great anti-war speech beyond Vietnam, which he gave in ‘67, he specifically points out how civil rights and a non-aggressive foreign policy are inherently tied together. You can’t have one without the other.

Adam: Yeah, and Human Rights Watch someone infamously did not oppose the war in Iraq in 2002.

James Peck: That’s right. We opposed aspects of the ways it was waged.

Adam: Legal technicalities.

James Peck: Well, the laws of war are okay. The laws of war are okay. And the laws of proportionality are okay. As with Vietnam, it’s very hard to get people to go back and from the human rights movement and say, ‘excuse me, isn’t there something very fundamental about American power you should come to understand?’ And what’s also notable at this time is I think human rights emerges partly against some of the conservative, moderate liberal, what would you call it, people like Fulbright and others, who were basically say, there’s nothing wrong with some of these universal rights in the abstract. But only Fulbright said ‘in the abstract,’ because the minute you start to tell people how they will apply them in an economic and social context, you are already veering towards, in his language, a certain ‘arrogance of power,’ which he felt was central to the American quest for dominance. And there were strong questions against human rights doesn’t question it?

Nima: Well, right. Right, exactly. Because if you if you start figuring out how to actually enact those economic rights, you get to — exactly as you’ve said — which are questions of shifting power. I want to, I want to kind of link some of the things that you’ve been talking about, namely the U.S. and its Western European allies, and their ability to kind of ascribe who the good guys and the bad guys are. And, you know, you mentioned how human rights discourse is really fundamentally supported, and has been since the beginning, through think tanks and other organizations that really play that kind of arbiter role. So I want to take that, but then also link it to this idea of Vietnam and political prisoners. And this is how: recently, President Joe Biden visited Vietnam, and before he did so, the Washington Post editorial board as well as Human Rights Watch, demanded that Biden “center” Vietnamese political prisoners in his discourse with Vietnamese leaders when he was in that country. So, in and of itself, look, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Political prisoners, not great, bad. We oppose those. It is important that people be able to act freely. But strangely, Human Rights Watch and the Washington Post editorial board didn’t make a single demand of the Vietnamese government to, I don’t know, with Joe Biden standing right there, bring up the United States’s is myriad human rights abuses, whether in the past against its own country or still currently to this day in our own country and elsewhere. The very same day, the Washington Post editorial was published, the U.S. state of Georgia announced a draconian RICO indictment against anti-police activists over their Stop Cop City protests. And there’s something truly bizarre here, I think, Jim, about the country with by far the biggest incarcerated population on Earth, the United States, simply being assumed to be the moral authority on wrongful incarceration. So, you know, can you talk a little bit about why it’s assumed that countries in the Global South are countries we’ve previously invaded, or countries that aren’t our Western European allies, they don’t get to scold us on anything. But when we go to their countries, it is incumbent on our leadership to point out where they’re not living up to our human rights standards. What is that?

James Peck: Well, I mean, again, it’s a form of self-idealization, and usually a very effective one. It’s also under lies that the United States is willing to make issues of human rights in areas where they can’t do much about them. And to ignore in those areas where it’s very useful for them to have those violations. In Vietnam, you know, he can make his points, though he’s being somewhat careful. But there’s an example of, of the grotesqueness of it all. I used to show in one of the courses I teach on the history of the Vietnam War, a BBC — of all things — documentary of the defects of newborn children in Vietnam to this day, so we’re in the third generation, from the defoliants, and they’ve truly horrifying. Now, these would be considered, in many cases, war crimes, or I would. But also, there’s no political accounting for any of it actually has been no political accounting for anything extra Vietnam, except for Lieutenant Calley. But I see your point about political prisoners. I didn’t hear him say anything about Julian Assange or people like that. I mean, we do have political pressures in this country. I remember, even when you take Chelsea Manning, and Chelsea was forced to stand outside of her cell nude each morning, who was commander in chief over all that? Who was pulling all this off? It basically went uncommented upon here. And I think the whole issue of prisoners like this is really an example of how we prefer to individualize rather than situate in the broad historical, economic, and social injustices. So, we talk about the individual. And it’s true, many of them are terribly wrong, but there are also of course, great selectivity, as you just pointed out, as to which ones we mention, and which ones we ignore.

Adam: I mean, even the formulation of political prisoners very curious to me, as some like discrete and evil thing, when you have, you know, the U.S. is 4.2% of the population, but 23% of the world’s incarcerated population. Like, at a certain point, especially when, you know, we know, for example, that President Nixon’s director of interior had admitted to Harper’s Magazine editor that the war on drugs was deliberately designed to lock up black people and the Left. So, you know, maybe not on an individual basis, but overall, like the real one of the one of the drivers of mass incarceration, by the admission of the architects of it, was political. So, you know, even if we grant that like, 5% of those people, you know, unless of course, disproportionately black, disproportionately poor, are somehow existentially evil, which I don’t think is the case, right? The U.S. has a prison population 5x that of Vietnam, per capita.

James Peck: Bigger than China.

Adam: Yeah, bigger than China. And I don’t think the U.S. is, I don’t think Americans are inherently more evil. So clearly, there’s a political dimension there, right? And the idea that we sort of go around scolding people about incarceration is just, when you actually stop and think about it, is completely nonsensical, it does it is completely irrational. But it’s so kind of built into the DNA.

James Peck: It is built into the DNA. Well, look at the Europeans for a moment. The EU likes to speak of itself as this embodiment of a different kind of a world, more prone to human rights, certain kinds of values. Look at how they treat migrants. Look at how they handle the people trying to flee to Europe. There’s an interesting book that came out recently called My Fourth Time, We Drowned by Sally Hayden, which surprisingly got a small op-ed piece in the Times, came out a few months ago. Well over 20,000 men, women and children have drowned in the Mediterranean in the last eight years. And the Europeans, when they capture people, send them back to African countries that they’re paying to keep in camps. And they have the chutzpah to talk about the values they’re enshrining. That, you say, it’s built into the DNA to not see it in yourself. And indeed, when you look at most of the media, until the actually the last few days, when he was coming out about 8,000 people who had left Africa for this one island off Italy, and the response to the EU is how do we get them back? Not stay. Now, this is a struggle, issue, we’ll come back to at the ending. But the whole issue of the kind of rights people have who are not from wealthy countries, who are from countries that are suffering enormously, and in many cases, for example, where are one of the largest numbers of refugees coming into the United States? They’re from Venezuela. Why Venezuela? It’s the biggest exodus of population in modern South American history. Why? Well, we say, well, it’s a terrible dictatorship under Maduro, and he’s no Hugo Chavez. But who put the restrictions of Venezuela? Who froze the currency? Who stopped them from using the dollar? Who pushed them so they ended up on Bitcoin, which then lost half of its value? This is what you don’t see in this process. And then you get into the issue of, well, we’re not responsible for any of this

A New York Times headline from March 20, 2020.

Adam: Yeah, well, sanctions, sanctions, which are never brought up. I want to ask, though, because I, you know, at the risk of appearing as if we’re just sort of being overly cynical, or what about ourselves into saying that rights don’t, human rights don’t matter? I guess my question I would ask you is, is how do we, you know, because I get I think these contradictions are a good diagnostic, they help you, I think, find the disease of hypocrisy. And also that like, the really kind of annoying head-patting, like, ‘Biden needs to go to this country and tell them all about’ it’s like, fuck you, who are you? You know, there’s no symmetry, there’s no, there’s no sense of, it’s just it really is just a rebranded version of colonialism in certain key ways. And, that aside, I do think that’s a diagnostic to a broader problem. But, let’s talk a bit about the cure. How does one present a framework, in your mind, without maybe not getting too prescriptive, you don’t have to do, like, a PowerPoint presentation? But how does one create a framework of rights that recognizes the value of negative rights, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from arbitrary incarceration, freedom from mass incarceration, versus positive rights, that understand the importance of quality housing, healthcare, etc? How would you, how would you sort of design that in a more equitable way that accounts for both the different kinds of rights, but also the power asymmetries that exist in a world of massive inequality?

James Peck: I think the problem to do so is harder than ever. And the reason is, what the human rights rapporteur for the United Nations said in 2019. ‘We’re headed,’ he said, ‘for global apartheid.’ It is a different kind of apartheid, because the poor and the weaker nations are going to suffer enormously. And he spoke to the human rights groups and said ‘you are simply not focusing on what the real world is like anymore. You are wound up in your legalities, your wound up in your concerns and certain issues, and you are simply going to be overwhelmed.’ I fear that’s partly what’s happening when the Secretary General of the United Nations refers to the ‘climate broil’ and the catastrophic situation where and we have to partly think, I don’t mean only on climate, but there’s a way in which climate embodies a very different world. The Cold War was partly about nuclear-powered nations, certain key nations could make key decisions. No one or two nations are going to make these decisions about climate. No one or two nations are going to figure out how do we deal with migrants? How do we deal with these issues? Because, if these things can’t be figured out, in some rights context, Donald Trump is going to look like a moderate in five years, in terms of the kind of uproar that’s going to be going on in Europe and other parts of the world. That’s my concern. So, when you say how do we do this? I think the only way is, you’ve got to have countries that normally don’t get along with each other working with each other, of which two major ones are China and the United States. Now, let me give you an example, of a concrete way of that. You pointed out at times, that the Europeans want other people to be like them, and the Russians aren’t like them, and therefore they’re considered as a hostile form. And it’s one reason Gorbachev, way back then, said “the house of Europe was sort of discarded,’ they were different. And unless countries are enough like you, you can’t really cooperate well enough. But the counter-argument is sometimes put, if you look at some of the Asian countries, the ASEAN nations in particular, they’ve been predicated on the opposite assumption, since they were created. For example, they invited Vietnam at the earliest stage. And their point was, the whole point of working is you have to deal with conflicting interests in ways that ultimately find some common patterns, however hard it is to do, because that’s what’s imperative. But this is an old problem, I used to be Senator Fulbright’s editor, and I remember, one of the last things, his last interview when he was still in office, I knew him much better later when he was out of office, he was asked, ‘What’s the biggest problem the U.S. faces?’ And he said, ‘The lack of political wisdom in our leadership.’ And his point was, you cannot have political wisdom, if you think you’re going to try to read the world. It doesn’t work. And he, a lot of his writing was about that, as were others. But you know, it’s a way of saying human rights would be better if it was more so to speak, modestly incorporated into the other legitimate demands, that are part of what the some sort of way of human survival requires. And again, as we pointed out at the beginning, several of you did, the whole conception of dividing political economic rights the way we do, which most of the world does not do outside of Europe, that doesn’t they achieve them, but they don’t do it and the quite the opposite, they usually are more struggling with economic and social rights, which one would, you say, I wish the US would too?

Nima: I agree. Let’s bring back FDR’s Four Freedoms.

James Peck: [Laughs]

Nima: This has been so great. Jim, thank you so much for joining us. We have been speaking with James Peck, Adjunct Professor of History at New York University, Founder of the Culture and Civilization of China Project at Yale University Press. He has written for The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, among many other publications, and is the author of numerous books, including Ideal Illusions: How the U.S. Government Co-Opted Human Rights, which was published in 2010 by Metropolitan Books. Jim, thank you so much, again, for joining us today on Citations Needed.

James Peck: You’re very welcome. Glad to be here.


Adam: I think it’s a fascinating conversation about how you sort of preserve the best of human rights discourse while getting rid of the kind of transparently cynical selective application of it.

Nima: Yeah. Well, I think that that’s really important, Adam, because the idea that it’s easy to be so cynical, right, because you can see how transparent so much of the discourse is. And I think what we try and do, at least a little bit, is try to analyze that, know where it comes from, while also not wholly dismissing it. Because also, like, and maybe I’m super naïve right now, but I think human rights are important and I think a global sense of human rights is also important. Do I think it’s ever been, you know, understood or enacted or protected in some kind of way? No, but I like not being able to dismiss wholesale, you know, negative rights in favor of positive rights. I think they need to both be understood.

Adam: Well, right, because what would a global regime of positive rights look like? What would it mean to have a global minimum wage? What would it mean to have a global rights to education? Again, things people have tried to pass at the UN, which are all token anyway, but even that can’t pass, right? Well, what would it look like to have a right to clean water? What would it look like to have a right to not be what would it look like to have a right to not be wiped out by climate change? I mean, you know, again, I think a system that puts an emphasis on both positive and negative rights, something that has been a struggle for 200, 300 years, I think, would be far more appealing to most people and make people less cynical and have a more global appeal. And, obviously, it would severely undermine the profits of Western multinational corporations, so it’s kind of not on offer.

Nima: Indeed. Well, and that’s where you get the hand-wringing, forced messaging, right? If things weren’t the way they were, then maybe we’d act differently at the governmental level. But they are, they are what they are. And therefore, we just have to, you know, we just have to do what we can, where we can. I mean, which really dovetail’s quite nicely with one of our earliest episodes from years ago, Adam, about the stumbling, bumbling empire, right? That we’re always just being sort of led around as a global nuclear superpower.

Adam: Well, that’s what made the like inciting incident about Biden reversing course or doing a 180 because of oil prices so frustrating and fundamentally false, because it implied a beat change, as they say in playwriting, screenwriting, a sort of change of direction that was never there. Again, in 2021, long before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or the rise in oil prices, Biden approved — over the objections of human rights advocates — a $650 million dollar weapons deal to Saudi Arabia. So, there was never any beat change, the pariah language was just campaign rhetoric. There was never any fundamental change. And so, there constantly has to be this supposed shift in policy away from this human rights focus that never existed. I mean, at least under Trump, we didn’t really fake like it did, except to invade Venezuela and he did the “humanitarian convoy” that was run by Elliott Abrams, who literally was found in a congressional investigation to be running fake aid convoys in Central America in the 1980s to run guns.

Nima: Yeah, it’s like it’s the thing he did well. I mean, if you want to do it, you get the guy who knows how to do it.

Adam: It was the most transparent. And then even still, you had Ken Roth of Human Rights Watch and you had even people like Matt Duss and Bernie Sanders, being like, ‘Oh, President Maduro needs to let in this aid convoy.’ It’s like, why would you let in? Again, if China just showed up to Oakland with a bunch of military ships saying, ‘O’h, we’re gonna bring in aid to the poor people.’

Nima: Right? If the borders are not open to CIA agents, is it truly a free society?

Adam: Yeah, ‘We’re gonna bring in aid to the poor people of Northern California.’ I’d be like, ‘Okay, come on in, guys.’ I mean, you have to be the world’s biggest moron. And so, again, even under Trump, right, the most cravenly cynical, not caring about human rights, we still had to maintain the theater with Elliott fucking Abrams. I mean, we can do a whole episode on that whole episode. I felt like I was losing my mind. Because again, the sort of mythology has to maintain, even in the face of someone who never even bothers with human rights rhetoric, like Donald Trump. We still had to undergird the kind of architecture of this rhetoric to, even in a very obvious attempt to stir a regime change, to stir a military coup in Venezuela, right? Sort of obviously, obviously that was the objective, but even then the sort of self-image can never really die.

Nima: That’s right. The mythology will always will always win out. But that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you all for listening. Of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon keeps the show going. We cannot do it without you. We encourage you to please sign up to Patreon if you listen to and enjoy the show. Like, subscribe, share it with your friends and neighbors and loved ones. It all helps so much. We are 100% listener-funded and, as always, a very special shout out goes to our Critic-level supporters on Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Thank you for listening to Citations Needed. Our senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Mahnoor Imran. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone, we’ll catch you next time.


This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, October 4, 2023.



Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.