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What the Hell Happened to Biden’s Human Rights Agenda?

It has taken a back seat to great-power competition. And this week at the White House, guess who’s coming to dinner?

Kay Nietfeld/picture alliance/Getty Images
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Joe Biden

As president, Donald Trump made no secret of his admiration for repressive rulers around the world. Joe Biden campaigned on a promise to change that. He regularly criticized Donald Trump’s silence about repressive regimes and promised that a Biden administration would “hold to account those who perpetrate human rights abuses.” Since taking office he has repeated the refrain that “human rights will be the center of our foreign policy.”

Not only has Biden not honored this promise, day by day, his administration seems to be moving further and further from it. Having promised to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” for its devastating war in Yemen and its assassination of Washington Post journalist and regime critic Jamal Khashoggi, among many other abuses, Biden reversed course shortly after taking office. The backdown culminated in his July 2022 trip to Saudi Arabia and has continued with multiple visits by senior administration officials since then, despite ongoing repression.

In Israel-Palestine, the administration has steadfastly refused to uphold international law or even to acknowledge that it is being violated on a daily basis. Israel has steadily consolidated its control over territories it occupied in 1967, corralled Palestinians into a set of disconnected bantustans, and cracked down on Palestinian civil society. Meanwhile, government-backed Israeli settlers carry out waves of terror attacks against Palestinian civilians, including a February raid on a Palestinian village that an Israeli officer referred to as a “pogrom.” With few exceptions, the administration’s response to all this has been silence. Its initial declaration that there must be “accountability” for the May 2022 killing of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh by an Israeli soldier has been forgotten, despite considerable evidence that it was intentional.

In the Philippines, the administration went forward with arms sales in early 2021 despite the Duterte government’s atrocious and well-documented record of human rights abuses, suppression of dissent, and an extremely violent “war on drugs.” This approach has continued under the new administration of Ferdinand Marcos Jr., despite a report that the number of killings committed in the context of the “war on drugs” rose after the new administration took office.

India offers another troubling and timely example. Biden has invited Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the White House, where he will be feted with a state dinner this Thursday. The Modi government’s ongoing efforts to impose an ultranationalist Hindu-led majoritarianism on the country have been widely covered. Human Rights Watch reports that Modi’s government has “escalated its crackdown on civil society and the media. Authorities prosecute activists, journalists, peaceful protesters, and other critics on fabricated counterterrorism and hate speech laws. They have shut down rights groups using foreign funding regulations or unfounded allegations of financial irregularities. The government has adopted laws and policies that discriminate against religious minorities, especially Muslims.”

Further underscoring the administration’s de-prioritization of human rights, two and a half years into his presidency, Biden’s State Department still does not have an assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, the top official for global human rights and democracy efforts. Having nominated one of Washington’s leading human rights champions, Sarah Margon, for the role, and standing by as she bravely endured a grueling series of interrogations, the administration eventually folded in the face of Republican obstruction and withdrew her nomination.

To be fair, the Biden administration has shown that it can hold some perpetrators to account—when perpetrators are adversaries. China, Russia, and Iran have been targeted by (entirely justified) measures, but thus far the administration’s approach seems to be that the United States will impose consequences for abuses only when all the strategic incentives line up correctly and won’t create domestic political headaches. Ultimately, this approach undermines the cause of human rights globally, as it shows everyone—friends and enemies alike—that human rights criticism is just one more cudgel to be wielded against governments the U.S. currently doesn’t like while giving a pass to governments it currently does. This doesn’t reinforce human rights norms; it reinforces the selectivity of those norms. If we want to know why much of the global south remains skeptical of the U.S. claim to be supporting democracy against authoritarianism in Ukraine, we can start here.

This is not to say the cupboard is completely bare. The administration took an early step protecting a key human right by reversing the Mexico City Policy (a.k.a. the “global gag rule”), which barred U.S. funds from going to organizations that make referrals for abortion or discuss abortion as an option. Its restrictions on government use of spyware announced in March were a good step toward limiting the proliferation of cyber tools used against civil and human rights activists around the world. The administration’s global economic strategy, articulated in a May speech by national security adviser Jake Sullivan, marks a long overdue break from corporate-dictated market orthodoxy. This has created an enormous opportunity for building a more just and equitable global economic system. But that opportunity will be squandered if our entire foreign policy is refracted through the lens of great-power competition, whose logic requires the downplaying of abuses by partners and sees relationships with repressive governments as assets to be preserved, no matter how harsh their repression.

The reality is that the U.S. sometimes must work with bad governments to achieve shared interests. But there’s a lot of space between maintaining relationships to achieve those limited interests and the full embrace of state dinners and endless arms sales we’re seeing now. We should also note that depending on repressive partners to deliver security isn’t new thinking for a new era. We spent the entire Cold War doing it. The costs of those policies were largely hidden from the American people, but they are not forgotten in the countries and communities where the violence of U.S.-Soviet competition played out. That history continues to bedevil U.S. efforts to build relationships in the global south. Doubling down behind repressive partners is simply repeating the mistakes of the past.

There is still time for the administration to change course and better honor Biden’s commitment. The U.S. can compete while taking a consistent stand behind human rights—indeed, doing so will help us compete even more effectively by drawing in new partners and allies with a shared interest in building a global system based on international law, not raw power, and arresting the slide into conflict by emphasizing our shared humanity. The last decades have shown definitively that the U.S. cannot transform regimes by a wave of the hand, but it can be a force for genuine human security based on the understanding that the security of Americans is inextricably bound up with the security of people and communities around the world, and that upholding a double standard makes us all less secure.