“Human rights are central to the mission of the United Nations. Not only are they the right thing to do, they’re the smart thing to do,” United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley declared in a recent speech in Geneva. The ambassador made a traditional distinction between “the right thing to do” and “the smart thing to do” in outlining the U.S. position as well as castigating the Human Rights Council for its inclusive approach to her perceived human rights violators such as Venezuela, Cuba and the Russian Federation.
The “right thing to do” is usually understood as the acceptance of universal values. Put simply, it would mean that all people and countries should follow universal norms such as respecting human rights and condemning those who violate them. National and international laws represent these values with courts and tribunals that punish those who breach the standards.
“The smart thing to do” has more than a value content. Smartness here would be closer to interests than values. It would be strictly political. The smart thing would be that which profits a given party in a given situation. Smartness is interest based, the right thing is value based.
While smartness does not seem high on the agenda of the Trump administration, Haley’s comment follows from Joseph Nye’s evoking smart power. For Nye, the United States could use soft power by promoting its cultural institutions such as movies to influence other countries. A rock concert or art exhibit may have more influence than soldiers, according to Nye.
Nye’s idea of soft power, first presented in 1990, had little traction. It was, according to Republicans and hawks, a typical Democrat weak response to the actual situation in the real world. Cultural events were not the same as impressive shows of force. Diplomacy was only valid, if at all, when backed up by military might.
The idea of smart power was a compromise between hard and soft power. According to former U.S. diplomat Chester A. Crocker, smart power "involves the strategic use of diplomacy, persuasion, capacity building, and the projection of power and influence in ways that are cost-effective and have political and social legitimacy."
What is “the right thing to do” and “the smart thing to do”? In Haley’s terms, it would mean taking a position that reflects universal values as well as U.S. interests. While she condemned the Council for putting “politics ahead of human rights,” her understanding of human rights as both the “right thing to do” and “the smart thing to do” flies against U.S. actions. How to explain President Trump’s invitation to the President of the Philippines to the White House as “the right thing to do”? It may be a “smart thing to do” in a political sense, but it is certainly not right in terms of respecting human rights. The two have not gone together in this administration.
President Trump was elected on a policy of America First. He has stated over and over that he is primarily concerned with American interests most narrowly defined. So be it. His priorities are clearly only American national interests.
For Ambassador Haley to combine national interest – smart power – with the right thing to do is not only a logical error, it is also in contradiction to the actions of her boss. How can she justify the first foreign visit of President Trump to Saudi Arabia? The selling of weapons to a country that is far from a human rights example?
Comparing values and interests is not always like comparing apples and oranges. Universal values and national interests are not inherently contradictory. But in the case of the current U.S. administration, interests far outweigh values. For President Trump, national interest is the only value.