Tending Our Garden: The United States and the Free World
lI faut cultiver son jardin.
We must cultivate our own garden: we must tend to our own affairs.
With those words, Voltaire ended the novel, Candide; the political oppression and religious intolerance that the hero Candide witnesses leads him to conclude that it is far better to tend his garden and live peacefully in his community or—in other words—mind his business. As a nation, it would do us well to heed his advice—cultivating a climate that respects human rights and the dignity of people of all races, ethnicities, and religious backgrounds at home before elevating ourselves as the vanguard of freedom and democracy abroad.
Presently, we deal with a crisis of American democracy. When our Founding Fathers put their pens to parchment paper and wrote “We The People,” they foregrounded a collective of people unified in the goal of creating a more perfect union through the democratic process. But what that perspective takes for granted is the colonial project, the genocide of Native Americans, and the use of centuries of uncompensated black labor that made the American experiment possible. To examine the architecture of our country, we must examine its foundations. And we may not like what we see.
Our house is burning. And the structural racism that disenfranchises black people, indigenous communities, and people of color is the match that set the home ablaze. If we are to guide the world towards a more democratic future, then our work must begin at home. Awakened from the dream of assimilation, Martin Luther King Jr. lamented, “I have come to believe that we are integrating into a burning house.” Positioned as a global leader since the end of World War II, not only have we failed to live up to the ideals that we hold most dear on the domestic front, we have exported our structures of oppression abroad. A University of Chicago Law School report demonstrated that police departments in 20 of the largest American cities did not meet “minimum standards” under international human rights standards. And, yet, the Department of Justice and Department of State has provided specialized training to foreign police in 63 countries—with an emphasis on the protection of human rights—since 1986.
It’s no coincidence that protests against systemic racism in American policing are not contained by borders: from the streets of Ghana to the West Bank, the evidence of our hypocrisy is now laid bare. The American carnage that President Trump pledged to end in his inaugural address endures, and it has become abundantly clear that the chickens have come home to roost.
The framing of systemic racism as a human rights struggle, as opposed to merely civil rights struggle, opens the door for transnational solidarity between black and brown people in diaspora and across the Global South and adds dimension to our understanding of the challenges we face. In his speech “The Ballot or the Bullet,” Malcolm X lucidly explained the limitations of viewing the problem of anti-black racism through the lens of civil rights when he said, “Whenever you are a civil-rights struggle whether you know it or not, you are confining yourself to the jurisdiction of Uncle Sam. No one from the outside world can speak out on your behalf…. And any time any one violates your human rights, you can take them to the world court. Uncle Sam’s hands are dripping…with the blood of the black man in this court.”
U.S. foreign policy decisions are often couched in the rhetoric of freedom, democracy, and human rights. Take President George Bush ‘68’s Operation Iraqi Freedom, for instance. Grounded in democratic peace theory, the mission assumed that democracies are less likely to go to war than nondemocracies and less likely to go to war with each other. However, the historical record reveals that, in regions like the Middle East and Africa, more internal conflict abounds in democratizing states. Not only have our interventions failed to bring peace, but they have also been paid for in the blood of over a half a million Iraqi civilians. In the name of peace, smiling U.S. soldiers and members of the intelligence community photographed the atrocities they committed against Iraqi civilians at the Abu Ghraib prison.
Look no further than the enduring presence of American imperialism—especially in the activities of the Central Intelligence Agency—for evidence of the fact that our interventions are not purely humanitarian. When democratically-elected Mohammed Mossadegh proposed the nationalization of Iran’s oil industry, threatening Britain’s decades-long control, the CIA orchestrated a coup and restored the authority of the Shah. During the Cold War and beyond, the United States has deliberately interfered with democratically-elected governments throughout Latin American countries in the name of corporate and national interests, producing widespread violence and political instability. Counterinsurgency tactics intended to stop the spread of communism legitimated the abuses of known human rights violators; as the Guatemalan army massacred entire Mayan villages, the Reagan administration was armed with the knowledge of these atrocities from the CIA station in Guatemala City, and they stood firmly behind the military regime. And in 1994, when the Guatemalan military destroyed evidence of torture centers, the Clinton administration did not say a word.
As of late, the United States has formally absolved itself of the responsibility to uphold human rights. By forfeiting membership to the United Nations Human Rights Council, lowering financial contributions to the UN, and ignoring communications from UN experts, the country is distancing itself from the international human rights system. The current administration even went so far as to state that it only engages UN human rights procedures when they “advance US foreign policy objectives.”
This disengagement championed by the Trump administration is not an aberration or a deviation from the norm: it is the norm. When faced with opportunities to champion the “promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedom” that the preamble of the UN Declaration of Human Rights speaks of, we have not done so consistently. Instead, we supported the racist apartheid regime in South Africa until the 1980s; in fact, it was a tip-off from an agent in our Central Intelligence Agency that resulted in the arrest of Nelson Mandela. Instead, the Obama administration supported the Saudi-led coalition with weapons and intelligence as they indiscriminately attacked civilian infrastructure in Yemen, contributing to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The specter of American complicity is the unseen figure in the horrific images of severely malnourished children eating cooked leaves as they fight to live.
At this moment, we see a resurgence in the global consciousness of America’s historic and systemic failures. And the echoes of Malcolm X’s blistering, unyielding critique still reverberate. In 1964, the African Union passed a resolution condemning our racial discrimination, and now, a key bloc of African governments wants the UN to inquire about abuses against people of African descent in the US and beyond.
Hopes for internationally-enforced accountability through the framework of human rights, however, are not a panacea. In all fairness, the United States is not the only culpable global power that has violated human rights. On December 10, 1948, the UN Declaration of Human Rights was ratified, setting out fundamental human rights that deserve universal protection from all nations and all peoples. The same Western countries who so willingly committed to upholding dignity and justice concurrently engaged in the violent project of colonialism in Africa and Asia. In the 1950s, the Kikuyu ethnic group responded to the injustices and economic marginalization brought on by British settler colonialism in the Mau Mau rebellion; the British responded by placing Kenyans in detention camps and subjecting them to torture, beatings, malnutrition, and sexual assault. During Algeria’s independence war (1954-62), French military forces routinely used torture and were responsible for the deaths of nearly 1.5 million people. French President Emmanuel Macron himself once admitted that the French colonization of Algeria was a crime against humanity: NGO Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights estimates a death toll of 10 million during French colonial rule.
The chinks in the armor of international accountability on human rights issues are numerous. Looking ahead, the incongruity of the United States’ domestic and foreign policies on human rights complicates our prerogative to defend human dignity in the world. The complex challenge of stopping human rights abuses is an urgent one. With one million Uighurs in Chinese concentration camps, the water rights of indigenous communities under threat, and the global absence of respect for the rights of refugees and migrants, there is no time to waste. Often referred to as the “policeman of the world,” the nation has struggled to handle our self-given mandate of fostering democracy and encouraging respect for the rule of law. The more difficult question to grapple with is: how can we reproduce justice and the rule of law in the world when we have yet to achieve those goals ourselves? Our garden still needs cultivation, and the work begins in small places, close to home.