Salvation in Small Steps

With the collapse of various ideologies and totalizing nostrums, human rights became ever more important in world affairs. Brendan Simms reviews Mr. Moyn’s “The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History.”

In their classic essay collection, “The Invention of Tradition” (1983), the historians Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger showed how many features of British society that seem to be rooted in time immemorial, such as public-school rituals and royal ceremonials, are actually of recent provenance. Similarly, in “The Last Utopia,” Samuel Moyn challenges the notion that something now so well-established as the idea of human rights—foundational rights that individuals possess against enslavement, religious oppression, political imprisonment and other brutalities of arbitrary governments—had its origins in the remote past. This “celebratory” approach, he charges, uses history to “confirm the inevitable rise” of human rights “rather than register the choices that were made and the accidents that happen.” The truth, Mr. Moyn shows, is that human rights, as we understand them today, are a “recent and contingent” development.

Mr. Moyn quickly disposes of the idea that human rights originated with the Greeks, who after all kept slaves, or even with the French revolutionaries of the late 18th century, whose “Rights of Man” led to the Terror. More controversially, Mr. Moyn denies that the experience of World War II and the Holocaust produced a decisive shift in our understanding of how to guard against systematic assaults on human life and dignity. Admittedly, the United Nations did issue the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, but this document led only to a cul-de-sac; it had few practical effects. Nor did the concept come riding in on the back of the anticolonialism sweeping the world in the 1950s and 1960s, which was focused on self-determination, not individual rights.

The breakthrough, Mr. Moyn argues, came only in the 1970s. This decade saw the Jackson-Vanik amendment of 1974, which tied U.S. trade with the Soviet Union to the right of Soviet citizens to emigrate. It was followed in 1975 by the Helsinki Accords, which required that the signatories, including the Soviet Union, respect “freedom of thought, conscience, religion [and] belief,” to quote the accord itself.

Such principles were soon used by Eastern European and Soviet dissidents to challenge the logic of the Soviet empire itself. The charisma of various figures—Natan Sharansky, Andrei Sakharov, Václav Havel, Adam Michnik—gave human rights the aspect of an international “cause,” and in 1977 Amnesty International—whose work on behalf of political prisoners epitomized the new focus on individual rights—was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Soon after, the administration of Jimmy Carter made human rights an integral part of official American policy, insisting that they be respected not only by the hostile Soviet Union but also by allied powers such as South Korea, though Mr. Carter was much softer on the shah’s Iran. In this way, as Mr. Moyn puts it, “human rights were forced to move not only from morality to politics, but also from charisma to bureaucracy.”

The reasons for this shift were numerous. Human rights had always been a part of the West’s Cold War policies, but their force had been blunted by the continued existence of European empires and, later, by the U.S. presence in Vietnam, where the brutality of war made it hard for America to serve as a moral arbiter. After decolonization and the withdrawal from Indochina, however, the battle was rejoined to devastating effect. The Soviet Union, a virtual police state, had nowhere to hide. Meanwhile, the experience of a decade or more of African and Asian independence had hardly been an advertisement for the moral purity of newly “free” states, where rights could be newly violated. A political consensus began to form that crossed party divides. “We’ll be against the dictator’s you don’t like the most,” Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan told a rival, “if you’ll be against the dictators we don’t like the most.”

Most important of all, however, was the intellectual and emotional effect of the collapse of alternative ideologies. Over the course of 70 years or so communism, anticolonialism and even the grandiose designs of the West’s expanded welfare states had failed to deliver on their bright promises. Human rights, Mr. Moyn claims, were thus “the last utopia.” Unlike the totalizing nostrums of the past, they offered salvation in small, manageable steps—”saving the world one individual at a time,” as one activist put it.

The arguments in “The Last Utopia” are persuasive, but the book is not without its problems. It is true that Mr. Moyn’s past rights-champions did not advocate the utopian program of the 1970s in every respect, but they were less far off than he concedes. The Cold Warriors behind the European Convention on Human Rights in 1950, for example, were surely close to Mr. Carter in the late 1970s in their insistence on political and civil rights rather than the broad spectrum of so-called social and economic rights demanded by the political left.

Mr. Moyn exposes the political motivations behind much of human-rights history—the supporters of the “humanitarian” interventions of the 1990s, for instance, cited human rights as a pedigree for their preferred policies. But his own views occasionally surface. We are never told why it is “disturbing” that the Reagan era saw an “assimilation of human rights to the inadequately developed program of ‘democracy promotion’ “; after all, the administration’s support for dissident groups in Eastern Europe throughout the 1980s did much to undermine Soviet autocracy there. Nor is it obvious that neoconservative arguments about the universality of human rights have had “many tragic consequences.” No matter. The triumph of “The Last Utopia” is that it restores historical nuance, skepticism and context to a concept that, in the past 30 years, has played a large role in world affairs.

Mr. Simms, a professor of international relations at Cambridge University, is the author of “Three Victories and a Defeat: The Rise and Fall of the First British Empire.”

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