Lessons for an Unserious Superpower:  Scoop Jackson on National Security and Human Rights in U.S. Foreign Policy (Part 2)
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Lessons for an Unserious Superpower: Scoop Jackson on National Security and Human Rights in U.S. Foreign Policy (Part 2)

Nicholas Eberstadt
December 16, 2023

In this essay from a series on the legacy of Senator Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, Nicholas Eberstadt offers suggestions about what a Scoop Jacksonian approach in U.S. foreign policy might look today, given the national security and human rights challenges the United States and its allies face under current global conditions. This is the second installment of a two-part essay by Dr. Eberstadt.

A Scoop Jacksonian Approach to Today’s World

The first installment of this essay on Scoop Jackson’s legacy in U.S. foreign policy described the worldview of this great twentieth-century American figure, how he fused concerns about national security and human rights in his approach to the Cold War struggle, and how the world has changed in the four decades since his death in September 1983. This second installment offers suggestions about what a Scoop Jacksonian approach in U.S. foreign policy might look today, given the national security and human rights challenges the United States and its allies face under current global conditions.

Although our post–Cold War security landscape is increasingly complex—and strikingly different from the international environment with which Scoop Jackson contended—Scoop’s “old fashioned” approach nonetheless lends itself to application in today’s world. Now, just as 40 years ago, the fault lines in geopolitics separate the powers that respect and promote personal freedoms and human rights from those opposed to them in principle. More than that, to make the world safe for themselves, states like the PRC, North Korea, Russia, and Iran must suppress human rights—not only at home but overseas as well. We are not talking about classic great-power rivalry in our contests against these states. An analysis that overlooks the intrinsically ideological character of the struggle between the U.S.-led order and those states attempting to overturn it misses the essence of geopolitical conflict today, wherein regime type and regime nature play a powerful predictive role.

For these reasons, attention to national security and to human rights were inseparable concerns for Scoop Jackson back in the era of détente. And to the Scoop Jacksonian eye, mistaken approaches to the human rights question from U.S. foreign policy in the 1970s still have their advocates in Washington and the academy half a century later.

On one side is the new generation of “realists,” who regard small endangered democracies like Taiwan and Israel—and now Ukraine, too—as inconvenient and costly claimants on American power. Some of these “realists” go even further, arguing that the United States’ entire system of military alliances constitutes a disadvantageous encumbrance for U.S. national interests. Scoop Jacksonians would hold that such “realists” are the ones being unrealistic: that the world—and democracy—is safer thanks to the “force multipliers” incumbent in the U.S. international security architecture, and that abandonment of democratic friends overseas would have incalculable adverse implications for our country’s security.

On the other side are the descendants of the confused and superficial Carter-era approach to human rights, represented in force at the moment in the Biden administration. The quintessential narcissism in the human rights policy of the New Left and Carter administration was to take a critique of American society and project it internationally, with domestic arguments morphing into State Department démarches to allies and aid recipients on the receiving end. Today’s human rights narcissists strive to impose their position on internal U.S. debates about “identity” and “autonomy” onto a global “human rights” canvas. A Scoop Jacksonian no doubt would be mindful of the unintended consequences of domestic “therapy” masquerading as international human rights policy—and (I suspect) would cleave close to fundamentals laid out in such foundational documents as the U.S. Constitution and the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.[1]

The Scoop Jacksonian begins by observing that the greatest force for human rights in the contemporary world is American power, especially when that power is harnessed to support the Pax Americana—the postwar architecture of trade, finance, and military/security arrangements that the United States maintains with friendly nations and treaty allies. As the sway of the United States and its friends and allies waxes, the fortunes and prospects improve for the little people all around the world—the individuals who aggregate into global humanity. The reverse is true for setbacks to Pax Americana, since this almost always means a decline in rule of law, individual protections, and governmental accountability for populations in the regions affected. A ghastly recent example is the fate that befell the people of Afghanistan after the Biden administration’s impulsive 2021 pullout: an extreme example perhaps, but not a misleading one.

To be sure, the international network of human rights NGOs, journalists, activists, lawyers, and jurists all have their honored place in advancing that cause in the four corners of the earth. But most of this work today is only possible because of the space that U.S. power has opened for it via Pax Americana, whose direct and indirect contributions to that cause are of an entirely different scale.

For the Scoop Jacksonian, the first task at hand for national security and human rights would be attending to the Pax Americana itself—repairing current cracks and strengthening foundations. This would entail recommitment to expanding free trade and finance with the West, attention to existing U.S. defense alliances, and patient attention to the potentialities for cultivating new security friendships with countries not currently in the U.S. treaty system: states in Southeast Asia, South Asia, and elsewhere.

Attending to Pax Americana would also demand a focus on U.S. power itself. U.S. defense capabilities relaxed in the wake of the Soviet collapse. Naturally enough, this was the “peace dividend” at the end of the Cold War. But times have changed, and our defense measures have not kept up with new global realities and threats. A postwar U.S. military force once structured to fight and win two major wars at once has been shrunk by budgetary expedience. The conceit among military planners today is that the United States could prevail against two major adversaries by winning against one of them first, then training all its resources on the second. This fanciful “win-hold-win” concept may look good to whiz kids with whiteboards, but it does not take all that much imagination to see what could go wrong with it in the field.

At 3.6% of GDP,[2] the U.S. defense burden is currently at its lowest level since before Pearl Harbor.[3] That budget, furthermore, is larded with social and other spending that does nothing for actual defense preparedness. By one estimate, such spending amounts to over $100 billion, or nearly a seventh of our overall “military” allocation.[4] At the same time, public finances look to be out of control. In 2023—a post-pandemic peacetime year in which the economy is not in recession—the federal deficit is approaching $2 trillion, well over 6% of GDP.[5] The underfunded military and the incontinent federal budget are two sides of the same coin—reflecting a deep current aversion to discipline and sacrifice in public priorities and requiring an urgent and deliberate course correction before the force of events imposes its own unforgiving variant.

At the end of the day, budgetary discipline is not only a national security issue but an international human rights issue. It is incumbent on American leaders to make this case to the public. The moral case, not just the practical one, will aid in the persuading. For a free people whose leaders require the consent of the governed for their statecraft, foreign policy is inseparable from morality.

A foreign policy that does not pass the electorate’s moral “smell test” will be ultimately unsustainable. This is another link between human rights and U.S. power, as Scoop Jacksonians would be the first to point out. Washington can amplify its moral power by claiming the high ground that rightly belongs to the United States and its allies at international organizations—first and foremost the United Nations, where our inattention has quite predictably occasioned the ugly rise of noxious politics and ideologies. The UN Human Rights Council seats as its arbiters some of the world’s worst violators—China and Cuba among them.[5] In the UN General Assembly, the secretary general all but blamed Israel for the mass murder of Jews that Hamas terrorists perpetrated within Israel in October 2023.[6] The United States is once again in hostile territory in the international war against human rights, as it was back in the 1970s at the time of the infamous “Zionism is racism” declaration. Cleaning the UN stable will take work but should be well worth the effort.

Assessing the Cases of China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea

A revitalized U.S. policy, informed by the nature of the regime type that lies at the heart of hostility to the Western order, could likewise marry power with principle in pushing back against China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, the world’s dictatorial new “gang of four.” The Scoop Jacksonian perspective not only is relevant here today but provides some welcome clarification of current thinking about how to deal with these four countries. Consider each case separately.

For North Korea, colleagues and I have already sketched the outlines of a strategy for addressing the nuclear problem that would depart from the past three decades of failed counterproliferation efforts and place human rights squarely in the forefront of the project to reduce the threat from Pyongyang.[8] Despite their differences, previous U.S. approaches have commonly sought to negotiate a denuclearization with the Kim family regime. This is “waiting for Godot” statecraft. The Kim family regime will never voluntarily relinquish its nuclear option, given its crucial role for the regime. The United States’ negotiation-oriented denuclearization policies have always sidelined human rights, since Pyongyang will never come to talks while that issue is on the table. The Kim regime’s greatest vulnerability is from within, from the alienation of its own people who suffer under totalitarian repression. While insisting on complete and verifiable denuclearization, the foundation of the U.S. strategy should be a human rights–upfront approach, a comprehensive information and influence campaign, and the advancement of the strategic aim of a free and unified Korea.

North Korea is a small and impoverished state. Its outsized influence on international security is not a natural feature of the world system but rather a flaw in it that exists largely due to our own failed policies. Better statecraft can progressively reduce the North Korean threat.

With Iran, regime-type diagnosis might likewise help prescribe more successful policies for confronting the imam’s terrorist dictatorship. These would begin by recognizing the futility of attempting to appease an unappeasable government. Appeasement policies can work, and have worked in the past,[9] but only when the grievance in question is specific, limited, and resolvable. Tehran is a revisionist state committed to destroying Israel, subjecting the Middle East to greater Persian domination, and engaging in unending jihad against the great Satan in Washington. Saying “no” to appeasement for Tehran means ending, once and for all, international diplomatic negotiations to slow the march of Iranian WMD programs in exchange for tens of billions in international cash. There are other ways to disrupt or derail Tehran’s death science homework. Squeezing Iran’s economy harshly and unrelentingly will dry up the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ military resources, too.

Tehran is the world’s most heinous state sponsor of terrorism; its leadership needs to know about retribution for crimes against humanity. Western power is capable of amputating Iran’s overseas terror proxies one after the next. Further, if it helps destroy these phalanges, the United States will also rescue in the bargain the local captive populations who have served as these monsters’ human shields.

Recognizing and leveraging the Iranian dictatorship’s domestic vulnerabilities is a human rights project long overdue and a national security opportunity for the world’s democracies. Iranians do not love the corrupt and unaccountable tyrants who preside over them. Mass protests against the regime have erupted repeatedly and have been repeatedly suppressed by brutal force. Demographic data reveals that Iran is a literate, urbanized mass education country with markedly sub-replacement fertility. By such soundings, a largely secular society may be suffering under the grip of an Islamic dictatorship in Iran today. Their subjects need to know that time is not on the mullahs’ side.

The case of Russia demonstrates, as if more proof were needed, that oppression at home and aggression abroad are two sides of the same coin for a would-be great power. The saga of the strangling of Russia’s nascent democracy in the post–Cold War era is also the tale of the Kremlin’s increasingly bold attacks on its neighbors and its ever more programmatic hostility to the West.

Russia’s descent into menacing dictatorship took place gradually, over the course of two decades. We are where we are today because of almost a generation of weakness and appeasement in Russia policy in the West. None of that would have surprised Scoop. We cannot turn back the hands of time, but the Western alliance can tilt what Soviet leaders used to call “the correlation of forces” against the Kremlin more sharply through concerted and steadfast action. The first and foremost order of business in that regard must be the defense of Ukraine against Russia’s invasion. Ukraine has fought bravely and very well. Fortified with Western armaments and training, the Ukrainian defenders have inflicted heavy casualties on Russian forces. By some estimates, up to half of the Russian Army may already have been chewed up in the fighting so far.[10]

But Scoop Jacksonians would want more than stalemate in Ukraine, or a war of attrition bleeding both sides. A full victory for Ukraine would include recovery of Crimea, annexed by Putin’s Russia in 2014. If U.S. and Western aid can help Ukrainians reclaim their own country, the message for all the world’s tyrants would be clear—and the reverberations for Russia’s tyranny would be massive. Defeated in Ukraine for all to see, both at home and abroad, the Kremlin might still harbor superpower ambitions, but those would amount to impracticable daydreams.

The struggle for Ukrainian victory may prove to be a long game. But the United States and its allies could embrace one immediate measure that would serve strategic and human rights objectives simultaneously in Russia policy. That would be a new round of Jackson-Vanik legislation—this time aimed at facilitating the outflow of Russia’s skilled professionals. The United States and other Western countries should want to welcome disaffected young Russian talent to our shores. These men and women, most of whom already speak English, will make fine citizens in their new homelands. As I have argued elsewhere, abetting the exodus of Russian intellectuals and technicians will spare them from the repression that may lie ahead in Russia, vitalize the economies of the United States and the other countries accepting them, and sap the Kremlin’s power by weakening Russia’s scientific-military base.[11]

The PRC and the CCP pose the most formidable security and human rights challenges to Pax Americana today—and also the most difficult challenges for those of a modern American sensibility to assess analytically. This is so because the open societies of the West find it hard to comprehend how an absolutist government can be comfortable encouraging, and drawing on, the creative powers that the market can unleash.

Our mental coordinates about totalitarianism and market economies have been forged by the misbegotten performance of the Soviet Union and other Soviet-type economies during the twentieth century. Their systematic economic failures led Westerners to conclude that Marxist-Leninist polities and other totalitarian dictatorships must fail economically, too. But China has long historical experience with grafting despotic governance onto flourishing market systems. In the thousands of years since the creation of the unified imperial state under the Qin dynasty, enlightened governance in China has waxed and waned. For many centuries ruthlessly ambitious imperial political controls have coexisted with vibrant markets. There is “memory plastic” in the Chinese tradition that permits the totalitarian impulses of the CCP and the uncontrolled, seemingly chaotic “creative destruction” of the economic development process to interact in a way that has made both the economy and the dictatorship vastly stronger since Scoop Jackson’s death.

The paradoxes of China’s “totalitarianism with capitalist characteristics” expose the United States and the West to some new and unfamiliar threats. Not only do PRC and CCP power put Western security at risk; they also create risks for Western freedoms that were unknown during the Cold War contest against the Soviet empire. These are threats from within, due to China’s newfound capacities to interfere in the domestic politics of open societies and influence outcomes in international institutions the United States helped establish in the postwar era. Over the past four decades the Chinese economy has become deeply integrated into the world economy—not just the U.S. economy but every other major Western economy. The PRC likewise has a place at the table nowadays—often a highly influential one—in the organs of the United Nations and other instruments of global governance. None of this is accidental; rather, it is a consequence of deliberate, bipartisan, and long-standing U.S. policy.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Washington bet that facilitating China’s (re)entrance into the world economy would serve U.S. interests.[12] But an unintended consequence of expanded economic contacts with the PRC was the creation of an archipelago of domestic constituency groups with their own financial reasons to carry water for Beijing at home. Epitomizing the problem is the NBA’s servile self-censorship on Taiwan, China, and other matters that might displease the CCP in order to preserve access to China’s huge entertainment market. So too does Wall Street’s recent unseemly clamor to jockey for position in Hong Kong’s financial market, even though the CCP has been systematically extinguishing personal freedoms in that territory.[13] Suffice it to say nothing like this took place during the Cold War, because the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) lacked comparable trade and finance ties to manipulate. Further, the CCP penetrates and harms U.S. society in ways Soviet leaders could only have dreamed of—relying on American consumers themselves to do the damage, whether via the poison of fentanyl or the poisonous propaganda trafficked on TikTok.[14]

There is also the hardly trivial matter of the CCP’s growing post–Cold War influence in institutions of global governance. The catastrophic Covid-19 pandemic was made incalculably worse by the actions—and inactions—of the World Health Organization under the leadership of a director-general whose candidacy had been championed by the PRC. With help from collaborators in the UN family of organizations to downplay both the significance of the contagion early on and later the Chinese government’s responsibility for its spread, the CCP has thus far managed to escape almost completely from any substantive accountability for the toxic behavior that needlessly cost so many lives around the world. Suffice it to say, here again, that it would have been inconceivable during the Cold War for the CPSU to capture and pervert the workings of an agency of global governance to its own advantage in such a manner.

Today—well into the fifth decade of normalization of U.S.-PRC diplomatic ties and over 40 years since the bipartisan consensus to encourage the PRC’s integration into both the U.S. economy and global governance institutions—American statecraft still lacks the language for describing, much less the conceptual framework for understanding, the new threats to security and freedom posed by China’s “market totalitarianism.”[15] We do not yet have a latter-day George Kennan or Paul Nitze to help us think through the ways the United States can protect itself against PRC efforts to influence Pax Americana “from within” without sacrificing all of the very real economic benefits that trade and investment with China have also created. Even if the Chinese economy continues to slow and calcify under Xi Jinping’s studiously repressive leadership, the scope and scale of PRC commercial and financial interactions with the United States and the West promise to expose open societies to domestic risks from the CCP that they never had to contend with from the CPSU during the Cold War era.

Notwithstanding the important aforementioned lacuna, most of the requirements of a national security and human rights policy for China in our time would probably look highly familiar to Scoop Jackson: credible defense, strong alliances with partners and friends in both the region and the world, and assiduous and intelligent counterpunching against CCP propaganda everywhere necessary. Unwavering systematic crackdowns on the PRC’s ongoing intellectual property crime spree and China’s worldwide industrial espionage network would also figure here. So too, echoing the Cold War restrictions on technology transfers to Communist countries, would a discriminate policy of research and technology denial to the PRC so as to thwart the CCP’s race to dominance in emerging fields of strategic significance.

But U.S. efforts to reduce the global threats from China will lack a North Star if they are not guided by the understanding that the true menace in Chinese power today lies in the regime’s commitment to the denial of human rights, both at home and abroad. That insight would have been obvious to Scoop—yet it somehow still manages to elude some foreign policy sophisticates and national security realists today. Making the world safe for the CCP is a tall order. But if you understand that, you also know why the regime’s military buildup abroad is mirrored by the development of an exquisitely intrusive “surveillance state” at home, and why the very existence of a proud Uighur minority in the PRC’s western hinterlands and a free Taiwanese population just off China’s shores are regarded as intolerable provocations by Beijing.

Tiny as it is in relation to the mainland, the Republic of China may actually pose a mortal threat to the PRC because it is the “existence proof” that Chinese civilization can not only support an open society with limited government and constitutional democracy but positively flourish with such freedom. Will the Taiwan example be remembered as a curious aberration in Chinese history, or the herald for its great future? Scoop Jackson’s preference would have been unambiguous, and so should Washington’s today. Freedom and democracy for China may be a distant objective. But Scoop had no problem with playing the long game.


Scoop Jackson’s perspectives on foreign policy do not provide us with a Rosetta Stone for all of the challenges facing the United States in the world today. That would be too much to ask of any past leader, no matter how towering he was in his time. Some features of our current global order are quite new, still unfamiliar to those of us who must contend with them here and now. The complex question of how to deal with extensive economic integration with an unfriendly state—our present conundrum with the PRC—is a matter for which Scoop Jackson’s legacy offers few, if any, clues. This complex puzzle we will have to sort out for ourselves, without guidance from him. It may not be the only one.

In a number of significant respects, though, the past may be prologue for current international questions and dilemmas. This two-part essay has argued that Americans still have much to learn from Scoop Jackson’s perspectives. Some of his answers to big questions in U.S. foreign policy seem as fresh and powerful today as they were in his lifetime. More perhaps than anything else, Scoop would tell Americans that U.S. power and principle are indissolubly fused: that national security and human rights in an effective U.S. foreign policy are not an either/or proposition. This lesson, now largely forgotten, is one that an unserious superpower could stand to relearn—both for America’s benefit and for the world’s.

Read part 1 of this essay: Lessons for an Unserious Superpower: Scoop Jackson on National Security and Human Rights in U.S. Foreign Policy (Part 1)

Nicholas Eberstadt holds the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute and is a member of the Board of Advisors at the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR). He researches and writes extensively on demographics, economic development, and international security, inter alia publishing numerous studies on Korean affairs. His association with NBR began in the early 1990s.


[1] The U.S. Constitution of course is our own model for individual rights under rule of law in a democracy. But the UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights offers important guidance on the desiderata for protection of individual rights, especially for territories and countries where limited constitutional governance and democratic rule are not yet firmly established. Even in places where democracy or independence has not yet been established, the Declaration makes clear that protection of the individual under law—including protection of personal property—can and should be expected.

[2] “Shares of Gross Domestic Product: Government Consumption Expenditures and Gross Investment: Federal: National Defense,” Federal Reserve Economic Data, https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/A824RE1Q156NBEA.

[3] Price Fishback, “World War II in America: Spending, Deficits, Multipliers, and Sacrifice,” Centre for Economic Policy Research, November 12, 2019, https://cepr.org/voxeu/columns/world-war-ii-america-spending-deficits-multipliers-and-sacrifice.

[4] Elaine McCusker, “Defense Budget Transparency and the Cost of Military Capability,” American Enterprise Institute (AEI), November 2022, https://www.aei.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/Defense-Budget-Transparency-and-the-Cost-of-Military-Capability.pdf?x91208.

[5] “Monthly Budget Review: September 2023,” Congressional Budget Office, October 10, 2023, https://www.cbo.gov/publication/59544; and “Table 1.3—Summary of Receipts, Outlays, and Surpluses or Deficits (-) in Current Dollars, Constant (FY 2012) Dollars, and as Percentages of GDP: 1940–2028,” White House, https://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/historical-tables.

[6] “Membership of the Human Rights Council for the 17th cycle, 1 January–31 December 2023,” UN Human Rights Council, https://www.ohchr.org/en/hr-bodies/hrc/current-members.

[7] “The Disgrace of the United Nations on Israel,” Wall Street Journal, October 25, 2023, https://www.wsj.com/articles/antonio-guterres-united-nations-israel-palestine-hamas-gaza-c4adf77a.

[8] Robert Joseph et al., “National Strategy for Countering North Korea,” National Institute for Public Policy, Information Series, no. 545, January 23, 2023, https://nipp.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/IS-545.pdf.

[9] One example is Britain’s post-bellum propitiation of the United States with respect to Washington’s Monroe Doctrine ambitions. See Paul M. Kennedy, “The Tradition of Appeasement in British Foreign Policy 1865–1939,” British Journal of International Studies 2, no. 3 (1976): 195–215.

[10] As measured by “combat effectiveness,” according to British and American political leaders briefed by their own militaries. See John Paul Rathbone, “Russia Has Lost Half Its Combat Capability in Ukraine, Says UK Armed Forces Chief,” Financial Times, July 4, 2023, https://www.ft.com/content/8cd1c388-6fb9-497b-a8a9-14b6ea21ede2. See also “Ukraine Used 3% of US Defense Budget to Destroy Half of Russian Army—Lindsey Graham,” New Voice of Ukraine, August 23, 2023, https://english.nv.ua/nation/ukraine-used-3-of-us-defense-budget-to-destroy-half-of-russian-army-war-news-50348574.html.

[11] Nicholas Eberstadt, “Operation ‘Brain Drain’: Help Russian Talent Flow West,” AEI, March 25, 2022, https://www.aei.org/foreign-and-defense-policy/operation-brain-drain-help-russian-talent-flow-west.

[12] See Dan Blumenthal and Nicholas Eberstadt, “China, Unquarantined,” AEI, 2021, https://www.aei.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/China-Unquarantined.pdf?x91208.

[13] “Wall Street Kisses John Lee’s Ring,” Wall Street Journal, October 29, 2023, https://www.wsj.com/articles/john-lee-hong-kong-u-s-sanctions-investment-summit-8c48b744?mod=opinion_lead_pos4. Note as well the unseemly jockeying among leading U.S. executives for a seat at the “coveted” main table at the Xi Jinping dinner in November 2023 after the APEC meetings in San Francisco. See Jacob Gu, “Fink, Schwarzman Get Coveted Seats at Xi’s Dinner Table in U.S.,” Bloomberg, November 15, 2023, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2023-11-16/dalio-cook-citadel-s-zhao-win-coveted-seats-at-xi-dinner-table?sref=w8jbO7G9.

[14] For just one example, see Donie O’Sullivan, Catherine Thorbecke, and Allison Gordon, “Some Young Americans on TikTok Say They Sympathize with Osama bin Laden,” CNN, November 16, 2023, https://www.cnn.com/2023/11/16/tech/tiktok-osama-bin-laden-letter-to-america/index.html.

[15] This is a term I may have coined in 2018. See Nicholas Eberstadt, “China’s Demographic Prospects to 2040: Opportunities, Constraints, Potential Policy Responses,” Hoover Institution, October 29, 2018, https://www.hoover.org/research/chinas-demographic-prospects-2040-opportunities-constraints-potential-policy-responses.