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Response to Review of Reclaiming American Virtue: The Human Rights Revolution of the 1970s

I would like to thank Umberto Tulli for a generous and thoughtful review that carefully lays out many of the book's arguments. I will respond briefly to his criticisms.

First, I do not argue, as Tulli seems to suggest, that international human rights law ‘inspired’ American human rights activism. At a time when liberals questioned their country's moral standing, the international roots of human rights norms helped these critics to frame their activities in terms that had broad international legitimacy, even as they also portrayed international human rights promotion as consonant with American ideals.

Second, Tulli wishes the book were more transnational, and it is certainly the case that the lines of influence flowing around the world on human rights issues were many and powerful. Transnational networks were indispensable to the rise of human rights: without information about abuses, there would have been no human rights movements. Yet the discussions Americans had in the middle of the 1970s showed an intense internal preoccupation. In my view the decisive factor in the U.S. turn to international human rights is not to be found in transnational links but in Americans’ own sense of trauma and the peculiar effectiveness of human rights as a salve for that trauma.

Finally, Tulli suggests that Carter’s human rights policy remained more anti-Soviet than my book allows. (Tulli’s own research is in this area, and I look forward to seeing his findings.) Though Carter did at times forcefully use human rights against the Soviet Union, by the end of his term he had cemented a broad public perception that his human rights diplomacy was at heart a liberal enterprise. It was a weakness that Reagan deftly exploited in 1980.