The Trump Administration’s Efforts to Redefine Human Rights Echoes Those of the Reagan Administration

Rasmus S. Søndergaard, Danish Institute for International Studies

The Trump administration will not be remembered for its commitment to human rights but it did oversee an attempt to dramatically redefine the U.S. government’s conceptualization of human rights. In doing so it followed the path of several previous administrations, including the Reagan administration, which formulated a narrow definition to facilitate a so-called conservative human rights policy in the 1980s.

The Trump administration leaves a rather damaging legacy on human rights. It demonstrated a general indifference to human rights violations among U.S. allies and adversaries alike with a few notable exceptions. Trump also frequently declared his support for – or even admiration of – autocrats with dismal human rights records. The administration’s domestic policies likewise often revealed a blatant disregard for human rights, as evident in its travel ban on Muslim-majority countries and forced family separations of migrants to name but a few. Finally, Trump flouted a numerous democratic norms, culminating in his refusal to accept the election outcome.


Pompeo’s Commission on Unalienable Rights

Alongside this general disregard for human rights in foreign and domestic policy, the Trump administration attempted to fundamentally redefine the U.S. government’s conceptualization of human rights. In July 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo created the Commission on Unalienable Rights as an advisory body to the State Department. Consisting of scholars, activists, and legal experts, the Commission was tasked “to ground our discussion of human rights in America’s founding principles.” Its final report issued in August 2020, concluded: “Prominent among the unalienable rights that government is established to secure, from the founders’ point of view, are property rights and religious liberty.” As such, the Commission gave primacy to two rights, which it deemed to be in accordance with the American political tradition, at the expense of a broad range of rights in international human rights law. The Commission and its report drew strong pushback from human rights NGOs and scholars, who questioned its necessity, composition, and conclusions.


Nevertheless, the administration’s effort to redefine human rights in the context of the American political tradition is far from a new phenomenon and neither are its conclusions that elevate civil and political rights above economic, social, and cultural rights. Throughout history, American support of human rights has been expressed in several vernaculars. Some, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, Jr., embraced a broad range of economic and social rights. The first U.S. president to devise a human rights-based foreign policy, Jimmy Carter, also subscribed to a broad definition of human rights at least in principle. Yet the dominant American approach to human rights, especially since the 1980s, has been to emphasize the preeminence of civil and political rights in line with those outlined in the United States’ founding documents.


Reagan’s Conservative Human Rights Policy

In the early 1980s, the Reagan administration crafted a self-described conservative human rights policy guided by anti-communism and selective democracy promotion. The administration initially sought to downgrade the role of human rights in U.S. foreign policy seeking to break with what it perceived as Jimmy Carter’s failed human rights policy. Pressure from Congress and the human rights community, however, pushed it to revise its strategy and move to co-opt human rights into its overarching foreign policy agenda.


This co-optation involved a considerable redefinition of human rights. Under the leadership of Elliott Abrams, the State Department’s Human Rights Bureau produced several reports that narrowed the definition of human rights to two categories: freedom from government violations of the integrity of the person as well as some civil and political liberties. Economic, social and cultural rights, by contrast, were relegated to lesser importance and described merely as aspirations. Although the definition employed by Abrams was not as narrow as that of Pompeo’s Commission, both efforts sought to elevate a set of civil and political rights by drawing on the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.


This redefinition served to legitimize the Reagan administration’s foreign policy at home and abroad. Elevating civil and political rights supported the administration’s propaganda efforts against communism, as it helped downplay the significance of economic inequality in Western democracies and delegitimize the emphasis on economic and social rights in the Eastern Bloc. Moreover, Abrams used the reports to argue that democratic regimes offered the best protection of human rights and that consequently democracy promotion ought to be a core element of any human rights policy. The result became a merger of democracy promotion and human rights criticism, where the former constituted a so-called positive track to complement the existing negative track of speaking out against abuses.


How Will Biden Define Human Rights

It remains to be seen how the Biden administration will define human rights but we already have some indications. As a candidate, Joe Biden clearly stated his intentions to make the commitment to human rights a central part of U.S. foreign policy and he pledged to host a Summit for Democracy. A message his Secretary of State Anthony Blinken recently reiterated in his confirmation hearing. Biden appears highly unlikely to adopt the narrow definition of his predecessor. Given his concern about socioeconomic inequality in the United States, it would be reasonable to expect him to embrace a broad conceptualization of human rights that, at least in principle, recognizes the full range of international human rights. At the same time, Biden’s consistent emphasis on democracy suggests that he might share the Reagan administration’s emphasis on the centrality of democracy to a successful human rights policy.


About the Author

Rasmus S. Søndergaard is a Senior Researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies, specializing in U.S. foreign policy, human rights history, and democracy promotion. He is the author of Reagan, Congress, and Human Rights (Cambridge University Press, 2020) and several articles published in journals like International Politics, Diplomacy & Statecraft, and the Journal of Cold War Studies. For further information on his research, please see:



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