The Soul of Our Foreign Policy: Human Rights, Ecumenical Activism and the Struggle over U.S. Policy toward Central America, 1976-1982.

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Nix, Shannon, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Nix, Shannon, Arts & Sciences Graduate-nasg, University of Virginia

On the thirtieth anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Jimmy Carter proclaimed, “Human rights is the soul of our foreign policy.” Notwithstanding the deep historical roots of Carter’s untroubled conflation of national interests and values, his administration’s unprecedented attempts to promote respect for human rights abroad, an objective conceived as both a national interest and moral obligation, signaled a sea change in U.S. policy. Yet most acknowledge that Carter’s embrace of human rights built on congressional initiatives that coalesced during Richard Nixon’s second term. These, in turn, emerged from an intensifying milieu of transnational and international rights activism during the “long 1960s."

Seeking to explain the influence of this activism on U.S. policy responses to overlapping crises in Central America between 1976 and 1984, this dissertation poses two questions: First, how did this heretofore marginalized form of politics emerge to become legitimate, lasting, and indeed a central factor in U.S. foreign policy? Second, how did Central America, a region in which the United States had few strategic interests, become a focal point for human rights politics and, in the minds of many policymakers, a critical hot spot in the late Cold War?

U.S. policy during this period was shaped by transnational political struggles waged on the discursive terrain of human rights. While U.S. officials were the ultimate arbiters of that policy, the dissertation draws attention to the influence of a far-reaching network of activists, highlighting the vital contributions of ecumenical religious actors, who were spurred on by Central American dissidents and abetted by key members of Congress. Together they injected human rights politics into the debates over U.S. policy in Central America, shaped that policy, and influenced outcomes in the region.

Exploiting new evidence and applying fresh methodological approaches to a well-studied topic, one with great contemporary relevance, the dissertation makes four important historiographical contributions:

• First, it highlights the underappreciated role of ecumenical activists in contributing to the rise of human rights politics in international relations.

• Second, by locating their activism in the history of religious progressivism, it widens the religion-and-politics literature, which has tended to focus more on the role of the “religious right” in domestic and international politics.

• Third, it shows how Central American dissidents, stymied at home, purposefully used transnational human rights politics to challenge repressive local power structures.

• Finally, the dissertation challenges persistent narratives about the Carter and Reagan administrations’ human rights and Central American policies. Despite sharp rhetorical contrasts, there was an underlying continuity, not just across these administrations, but also in the longer arc of U.S. Cold War policy in the region.

Human rights politics derived significant power from their identification with a widely shared sense of national exceptionalism. This power was amplified by the convergence of secular national ideals with religiously inspired teachings about righteous conduct. Indeed, ecumenical activists drew strength from religiously inflected national identities in both the United States and Central America. The ideals animating the politics of human rights had become “civil religion,” not only for many U.S. policymakers, but also for their counterparts in many “modern” and “modernizing” societies. After the national trauma of Vietnam, it is little wonder that the next domestic battle over an appropriate U.S. response to revolutionary change abroad would be contested on the terrain of human rights. These activists helped insure that Central America would be that battleground, in a struggle for “the soul of American foreign policy.”

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
human rights, U.S. foreign policy, Central America, religion and politics, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Latin America, transnational activism, liberal ecumenicism, democracy promotion, solidarity
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