"Reinvigoration of Human Rights Policy"

Globe and many faces

Memo Review by Andreas L. Hahn, 2020 Fletcher MALD Candidate


(Memorandum From the Deputy Secretary of State (Clark) and the Under Secretary of State for Management (Kennedy) to Secretary of State Haig[1], 26 October 1981)

The memo on the “Reinvigoration of Human Rights Policy” left an impact on me because it distilled abstract concepts in a persuasive way. But what made this particular memo stick, compared to an abundance of other memos on the topic? The key reason for the effectiveness of the memo is its clarity and ability to cut through nebulous concepts right to the essence. It is humble in the way that it asks the fundamental question of why human rights should be at the center of US foreign policy. And, the document carries immense credibility because of the personalities and position of the two authors.

            While there is no explicit problem statement upfront, the subject line (“Reinvigoration of Human Rights Policy”) gives a sense of the core argument. Because the memo is such a foundational document, I believe it is appropriate that the authors take the time to develop an argument rather than jump straight to a conclusion or defining “what’s wrong?” With this structure, the authors carefully consider their target audience and the hierarchy of the State Department. Criticizing current US foreign policy could cause unnecessary tension.

            The authors enhance their persuasiveness in two ways: First, they explain what the US is not (namely the Soviet Union). And they use country examples to illustrate how human rights should inform US policy. Second, the informal tone (using wording such as, “dealing with the Soviets” and “a human rights policy means trouble”) helps to provide clarity in a subject area that can be nebulous. By dropping the official or bureaucratic tone, the authors also establish a conversation. Their undiplomatic voice, which is unafraid to call out certain countries or speak about uncomfortable realities (“we have to be prepared to pay a price”) is aligned with the central notion that in the area of human rights, the US cannot afford ambiguous policies.

            The authors formulate clear recommendations, but do not provide any options. This is because the nature of their argument (human rights should be the essence informing US foreign policy) leaves no room for alternatives. The unique geopolitical context of the Cold War explains the determinism in the memo. 1981 was full of shake-ups in US foreign policy: Reagan assumed office, the Iranian hostage crisis was concluded and, later in the year, the President would authorize the CIA to recruit and support Contra rebels in Nicaragua. Given that the foreign policy of the time was challenged on human rights grounds, this memo exudes authority.