In its formulation of foreign policy, the United States takes account of many priorities and factors, including national security concerns, economic interests, and alliance relationships. An additional factor with significance that has risen and fallen over time is human rights, or more specifically violations of human rights. The extent to which the United States should consider such abuses or seek to moderate them has been and continues to be the subject of considerable debate.
Sarah B. Snyder
International law is the set of rules, formally agreed by treaty or understood as customary, by which nation-states interact with each other in a form of international society. Across the history of U.S. foreign relations, international law has provided both an animating vision, or ideology, for various American projects of world order, and a practical tool for the advancement of U.S. power and interests. As the American role in the world changed since the late 18th century, so too did the role of international law in U.S. foreign policy. Initially, international law was a source of authority to which the weak American government could appeal on questions of independence, sovereignty, and neutrality. As U.S. power grew in the 19th and early 20th centuries, international law became variously a liberal project for the advancement of peace, a civilizational discourse for justifying violence and dispossession, and a bureaucratic and commercial tool for the expansion of empire. With the advent of formal inter-governmental organizations in the 20th century, the traditional American focus on neutrality faded, to be replaced by an emphasis on collective security. But as the process of decolonization diluted the strength of the United States and its allies in the parliamentary chambers of the world’s international organizations, Washington increasingly advanced its own interpretations of international law, and opted out of a number of international legal regimes. At the same time, Americans increasingly came to perceive of international law as a vehicle to advance the human rights of individuals over the sovereign rights of states.
Stephen P. Randolph
Best known as Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state during the Civil War, William Henry Seward conducted full careers as a statesman, politician, and visionary of America’s future, both before and after that traumatic conflict. His greatest legacy, however, lay in his service as the secretary of state, leading the diplomatic effort to prevent European intervention in the conflict. His success in that effort marked the margin between the salvation and the destruction of the Union. Beyond his role as diplomat, Seward’s signature qualities of energy, optimism, ambition, and opportunism enabled him to assume a role in the Lincoln administration extending well beyond his diplomatic role as the secretary of state. Those same qualities secured a close working relationship with the president as Seward overcame a rocky first few weeks in office to become Lincoln’s confidant and sounding board. Seward’s career in politics stretched from the 1830s until 1869. Through that time, he maintained a vision of a United States of America built on opportunity and free labor, powered by government’s active role in internal improvement and education. He foresaw a nation fated to expand across the continent and overseas, with expansion occurring peacefully as a result of American industrial and economic strength and its model of government. During his second term as secretary of state, under the Johnson administration, Seward attempted a series of territorial acquisitions in the Caribbean, the Pacific, and on the North American continent. The state of the post-war nation and its fractious politics precluded success in most of these attempts, but Seward was successful in negotiating and securing Congressional ratification of the purchase of Alaska in 1867. In addition, Seward pursued a series of policies establishing paths followed later by US diplomats, including the open door in China and the acquisition of Hawaii and US naval bases in the Caribbean.