After the U.S. fades, wither human rights?

March 27, 2012

The shrinking of U.S. power, now pretty much taken for granted and in some quarters relished, may hurt news coverage of human rights and the uncovering of abuses to them. But not necessarily. Journalism is showing itself to be resilient in adversity, and its core tasks – to illuminate the workings of power and to be diverse in its opinions – could prove to be more than “Western” impositions.

When the British Empire withdrew from its global reach after the World War Two, the space was occupied, rapidly and at times eagerly, by the resurgent United States, at the very peak of its relative wealth and influence in the immediate postwar years. What it brought with it was a culture of journalism that was increasingly self-confident in its global mission: not just to describe the world, but to improve it. Some European journalism had that ambition too, but these were nations exhausted by war. The Americans, at the peak of their influence in the postwar years, had the power, wealth, standing and cocksureness to project their vision of what the world should be.

Now, American power too will shrink, and the end of U.S. hegemony (it was never an empire in the classic sense) will mean that there will be a jostling for power, influence, and above all resources by getting-rich-quick mega-states like China, India and Brazil. They will project their view of what the world should be — they have already begun, some (China) more confidently than others (India, Brazil).

Whether this will mean that the illumination of the workings of power around the globe will be better or worse will be one of the large themes for journalism of the next decades. In his The World America Made, Robert Kagan thinks, by implication, that it could be worse, because he believes the U.S. did most for human freedom round the world and a loss of American power means a threat to the protection it offered to democratic change. He writes that “perhaps democracy has spread over a hundred nations since 1950 not simply because people yearn for democracy, but because the most powerful nation in the world since 1950 has been a democracy.” I think he’s right in this, and that his “perhaps” is pretty definite. And if he is right, it means that the impulse to probe and expose will be weaker.

The U.S., however imperfectly, often hypocritically, and at times mendaciously, nevertheless possesses a default mode in favor of freedom and human rights. So do the European states. But though the European Union is more populous and has a higher GDP than the U.S., it’s disunited and likely to stay that way. So the decline of the U.S., even if it remains only relative rather than absolute (as Kagan believes), is the important issue. It could mean that the narratives of human rights, told by Western governments, by NGOs and above all by journalism, will become fainter.

Western journalism has developed human rights, and their abuses, into one of its major themes. Where the “something must be done” approach to issues was once largely confined to domestic matters, it is now writ globally. Western journalists, especially those from Anglophone countries, feel empowered to report and comment critically on the authoritarian and despotic policies of every country everywhere – the more so since the end of the Cold War meant that the pressure from Western governments to soft-pedal the abuses of tyrants who were on our side was no longer felt in the editorial offices.

The journalism of human rights was often valuable and sometimes influential, making abuses known and getting something done about them. Behind it, though unacknowledged for the most part, was Western, mainly American, power. Western reporters and columnists could take these stances because they had the moral backing of the most powerful nation on earth and its European allies. And sometimes, when they got into trouble, the governments of these states would intervene to try to get them out of it (not always successfully). The clout that the New York Times, the BBC, Le Monde – or, for that matter, Reuters – can exert is partly due to the ideals they espouse, partly underpinned by the global power of the West, with the U.S. ever in the lead.

When the SARS epidemic was suppressed by the Chinese authorities in 2002-2003, the brave efforts of the Chinese media to cover it (and they did, against threats and even imprisonment) were greatly assisted when Elizabeth Rosenthal of the New York Times picked up the story and her paper put it on the front page, shaming the regime. The struggle for free speech and free elections in China waxes and wanes, and it may be that over the next decade, there will be more openness. But if there isn’t, and China’s power puts the U.S. in a greater shade, China’s journalists will have an even harder job than in the recent past.

Western journalism, which has itself been hegemonic for many years, will face greater challenges from states and their media that reject the human rights narrative – or at least, use it selectively. It’s already happening: The new, global TV channels sponsored by states like China, Russia, Iran and Venezuela spend much of their time trashing the Western media’s coverage of their states. Their common approach can be summed up by the remark of Jesus in Matthew, chapter 7: “You hypocrite, first cast the beam out of your own eye; and then shall you see clearly to cast out the mote out of your brother’s eye.” Or more simply: What makes you Westerners so great? (It isn’t the British tabloids.)

The difference between the state-sponsored journalists and the majority of the Western ones is that the latter, for good or ill, are acting independently. We really do think abuses of human rights are bad things everywhere and that common standards should be applied to them. The arguments between state-sponsored journalists and those who have some sense of professional independence are a dialogue of the deaf: If they continue, we get a spiral of incomprehension and contempt.

There is another possibility, though. Almost everywhere in the world, there are journalists who get it – get, that is, that independent journalism’s claim must be based on an attempt to tell the same kind of truths to all kinds of power. If a Chinese reporter does some good reporting and analysis on the fact that the U.S. incarcerates one in four of its young black male citizens, because he sees a problem in that, we should attend to his or her reportage as much as anyone else’s. If however the piece is thrown together to divert attention from the allegation made this week by Amnesty International that China executes “thousands” of criminals, then we shouldn’t.

My belief, from talking to journalists in Russia, China and India over the past few years, is that in all of these countries there is a growing core of reporters and editors who interpret their job as something of a moral duty and believe that independence and freedom are required to do that. Achieving that independence and freedom will not be easy, and will certainly not be safe. In the West, journalists who expose human rights abuses win awards and better salaries. In China they can go to jail. In Russia, they can get murdered – as was Anna Politkovskaya in October 2006, after a decade of fierce reporting from the killing grounds of Chechnya. She is only the most famed tip of an iceberg.

But in spite of that, my bet is that many of these men and women will carry on. They do see in Western reporting – especially investigative journalism – a model and seek to learn from it. But they will fashion their own tools to tackle the job they have set themselves. There is much in their societies – poverty, misuse of power, corruption – that demands the exercise of rigorous reporting. And as they do that, and as the power of their societies grows, they will become more confident – on their own professional account – to make judgments about the behavior of Western states as well as their own.

When they do, they will see a lot of motes in our eyes. We should then have a dialogue where both listen. And that will be good for us all.

PHOTO: Security officers stand guard at the foot of the stairs to stop journalists, whose names are not on the list of attendees allowed into a news conference by China’s Chongqing Municipality Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai, during the ongoing National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s parliament, at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, March 9, 2012. REUTERS/Jason Lee


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

As an American I totally disagree with the assumption of this article. The US has not been a beacon of human rights, but merely a beacon of the mantra “money rules”. US foreign policy has overlooked human rights issues with oil producing countries, or those that profess a “leftist” insurgency (Colombia, El Salvadore). If the country becomes a major trading partner with the US (CHina), then US again back pedals on human rights.

Furthermore, the US is no leader in human rights when it has the highest % of prison population after CHina, allows children to be tried as adults, and executes without a fair trial. If you look at US prison population, it certainly seems like a pogrom to take young, uneducated minorities out of public life.

As to journalism, well just look at FOX and tell the rest of the world that US media is a beacon for human rights. YOu will be laughed at.

Posted by Acetracy | Report as abusive

At least now you know where the US stands in relation to the rest of the world with regards to human rights. I believe the article is suggesting that all of the information you now use to discredit America’s advancement of human rights would have been previously unavailable. People only started to pay attention to this stuff in the post war years and our author is attributing that change to American journalism’s culture.

That point has more merit than you give it credit for. I don’t really recall reading about human rights movements during the industrial revolution or the gilded age. Whether it was American journalists or some other factor, the amount of information on human rights greatly increased after the war. The other plausible explanation would be that the Nazi abuses made people realize that human rights are important.

Posted by CapitalismSays | Report as abusive

CapitalismSays –

Here you go – – A brief history of human rights movements, from the earliest era of recorded history to the present. For details, consult the accumulated output of human creativity that has survived to date, and that continues to expand. Caveat: Don’t be fooled by cheap imitations.

Posted by TobyONottoby | Report as abusive

I love it – the US shrink is immanent, though it was never an empire really. I, say, old boy, not still resentful, are we, about Brit-ish slippage in world standings? Don’t worry, you still have your imperial accent to fall back on during these lean times.

What’s truly ironic is that an Aussie is in charge of one of the largest corners on the American and British journalistic empires (I think the term does apply to corporations). For better or for worse, British imperialism resulted in vertical prowess for a large portion of society that previously had no chance of rising to the top of the world’s ladder. Australian, Canadian and US have injected this ethos into the world economy at large, and like the previous post, I don’t think that the current spate of communist ascendance offers the same possibilities to its yearning masses.

But three cheers for journalism everywhere!

Posted by hyperlux | Report as abusive

The world will be a place for the political criminals if US and the Western countries fail. Although the Western nations and the US may have had issues with human rights from time to time due to mockery leaders like George Bush and Tony Blair, it is much better place than China or Russia where human rights activists and defenders have no place. The West has to isolate Israel that commits human rights abuses if they want to bring any credibility to their stand on human rights. If not Iran may win the battle in the long term against the West.

Russia, China, India and other nations have no respect for human rights. Indian Congress regime was boasting on human rights and it has collaborated with the Sri Lankan regime in committing human rights abuses and war crimes against the Tamil minorities.

Posted by ShivaForJustice | Report as abusive

The self-righteous assumption of American journalist virtue is a bit sickening.

The American press has covered up public corruption and mendacity in and by the US Government ever since John Kennedy. They have created a political secular religion of American saints who just happen to be born wealthy American aristocrats, by some strange coincidence. Whatever light of revelation has been shined has been on foreigners or those who domestically challenge the pantheon of “Post WWII” saints who have done and cannot do wrong.

The American Press would do better raking our own especially deep and pungent domestic dung heap for stories of injustice and oppression. War, war, and more war. More taxes, fewer benefits, halo polishing and finger pointing, prisons bursting with inmates and a population under continuous surreptitious surveillance. Who could possible find fault here? Not our Panglossian press.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

It’s kind of interisting to me what makes the author of the book as well as the author of this commentary feel so good about themselves. They failed to point out, or purposely concealed the fact that, these “independent journalists”, are employed and commanded by the “wealthy American aristocrats” and untimately serves for their interest. The “human rights” is only an excuse these “wealthy American aristocrats” and their puppet governments use for interfering and subverting developing countries who rejects to submit themselves to the interest of these “wealthy American aristocrats”.

Posted by Spacetime | Report as abusive

You state “The U.S., however imperfectly, often hypocritically, and at times mendaciously, nevertheless possesses a default mode in favor of freedom and human rights.”

I submit that you are completely wrong. That statement does not fit the reality of what this country has been and still is.

We mouth “freedom and human rights” like it was a campaign slogan, but then like all good politicians we do as we please.

Posted by PseudoTurtle | Report as abusive

@txgadfly is highly accurate.

“a population under continuous surreptitious surveillance”.
This is the biggest threat to free-speech and the first amendment. And journalism is simply a very restricted locality of free-speech.

As it stands today, journalism from the “main stream media” is simply the propaganda machine for the “main stream politicians”

Posted by trevorh | Report as abusive

The authors don’t once mention the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights. And it never gets much mention here in any media. In years, I can’t remember seeing more that a word or two about it. To learn anything at all one has to go the UN site for the document.

The Constitution of the United States was not enforced because a few big states (or even one) were able to dominate the political life of the country, the way the US tends to think it must dominate the planet.

In any event, no one gets to play the agenda setter forever. Citizens of every advanced country are taught that honest and reliable civil institutions are better than the help of the biggest armies to ensure security, “domestic tranquility” and even prosperity.

But wars aren’t respecters of human rights until they are over and the participants and victims can reclaim their human rights or the nearest local version of them. The wars don’t seem to be able to deliver national prosperity anymore either.

And other than military might – there isn’t much that distinguishes the US from the other advanced countries that share the same definitions of human rights as stated in the UNUDHR.

It hasn’t been said here – but the question of appropriate or innate human rights isn’t settled by any means. And most citizens doesn’t really live at the cutting edge of human rights, let alone understand what they all are, even here. One has to learn them to some extent.

That is an educational challenge as much or more than an issue for journalists and warriors.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

did you mean whither or wither?

as it is, the headline suggests the green branch of huamn rights will wither

Posted by scythe | Report as abusive

American journalism the beacon of human rights?!? You have got to be kidding! I mean there are jokes and then there are complete and utter perversions being passed off as jokes. American journalists stumbled, fell and dropped the ball decades ago. I’m not sure a western journalist could even spell ‘investigative reporting’ in today’s day and age. Pandering, self-censoring, cowardly jack-in-the-boxes the entire lot of them.

Posted by stambo2001 | Report as abusive

Yes, I was wondering about that “wither” (whither?), too.

Posted by leslie20 | Report as abusive

Yup, game over. The United States is doomed. And anyway, it was actually an evil empire to begin with. It never really served as a symbol or inspiration to others. In fact, the world would be a better place if the country had never existed. If only everyplace could be like Sweden or Cuba, we would all be so much happier! [drips sarcasm]

Posted by Kindoalkun | Report as abusive