Human Rights

After Trump’s presidency there is a lot of talk about whether the United States remains a beacon light for democracy, human rights and the moral standing that Americans rejoiced in for so long.  In fact, the idea of the US being a “city on a hill” is a relatively recent concept.  The US Constitution, which is widely criticized today, was always seen as enlightened, but America’s practices were not frequently highly praised.  What people now look back on as the good old days of democracy were days when segregation still existed, and a much higher percentage of the population lived in what we now call poverty and wealth inequality. 

The State Department did not have a human rights bureau until the Carter administration created one.  I had to write the first draft of the first human rights report on Brazil while I was working on the Brazil desk.  Brazil still had a military government and had many black marks in its human rights record.  I remember trying to make the report as positive as possible for Brazil, but always made more negative by the human rights bureau.  I remember Mark Schneider and Michelle Bova particularly wanted the report to be more critical of Brazil.  I suppose I had a case of “clientitis,” from having served in Brazil before working on the Brazil desk. 

In any case, I don’t think “human rights” were nearly as important an issue earlier as they were in the Carter administration.  There were the Nuremberg war crimes trials, but the Holocaust did not become a widely publicized event on everyone’s lips until years after World War II.  It was a horrible thing, but there was no Holocaust Museum until 1993, 

It is only in the last fifty or so years that the US has begun to proclaim its moral superiority to the world and demand other countries to equal our level of human rights protection.  We should not be surprised if we and the rest of the world begin to look at our standing with a more jaundiced eye. 

July 4, 1976

On July 4, 1976, I was working in the Current Intelligence Office of the State Department Operations Center.  It was the 200th anniversary of US independence.  The glitterati were having a big party in the eighth-floor diplomatic reception rooms of the State Department.  My shift happened to be in the evening while the fireworks on the mall were going off.  The powers that be invited all the officers working in the Operations Center to come up for a few minutes and watch the fireworks from the eighth-floor balcony overlooking the mall.  I went, and although I could only stay a few minutes, it was mem

A few years later while I was working on the Brazil desk, President Jimmy Carter held a dinner for all the Latin American ambassadors in Washington.  I had to meet the Brazilian Ambassador and escort him up to the dinner, they wait and escort him out of the building after dinner, along with the desk officers for the other Latin American countries.  While we were waiting, Rosalynn Carter came down to thank us all for helping out with the dinner.  She demonstrated the Carters’ concern for the little guys, and I appreciated it. 

Nixon and the Gold Standard

David Westin’s “Balance of Power” show on Bloomberg is often insightful.  Today I learned of Jeffrey Garten’s new book Three Days at Camp David: How a Secret Meeting in 1971 Transformed the Global Economy.  It is a bout President Nixon’s decision to take the US off the gold standard, under which gold had been pegged at $35 per ounce. 

It was a momentous decision by Nixon, but one that has received less attention than other momentous Nixon decisions: the opening to China, pursuit of the Vietnam War, creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and of course Watergate. 

I haven’t read the book, but I should because it’s time someone recognized how important that 1971 decision was.  It changed the way the world economy worked.  It opened up the global financial system but also made it more unstable.  Jimmy Carter got a lot of grief for the high inflation that took place during his administration.  I think at least part of it was due to Richard Nixon taking the US off the gold standard, making it much easier for inflation to take place.  Markets were adapting to the new reality of depending on the Federal Reserve, rather than the gold in Fort Knox to control the value of the dollar.  Central banks around the world became more important.

Despite being on the gold standard, Nixon was faced with inflation of over 5%, as well as high unemployment.  He was under pressure to devalue the dollar’s price against gold.  Wikipedia says that Nixon conferred with recently appointed Treasury Secretary Connelly, Fed chair Arthur Burns, Treasury Under Secretary Paul Volker (later to be Fed chair under Jimmy Carter), and others, probably including OMB chair George Shultz (later to be Secretary of State under Reagan).  A Wall Street Journal article said that Fed chair Arthur Burns played only a minor role there and that Henry Kissinger, who may have been preoccupied with China, was not there. 

Garten says Nixon’s decision showed that the US could no longer support the world economy alone.  To Nixon’s credit, he took the initiative, rather than waiting for a crisis when the world came calling all at once to collect gold for dollars and there was not enough gold to pay everybody.  Taking preemptive action was the right decision, even if it left Jimmy Carter holding the bag a few years later.  Whether it was exactly the right action is debatable, but the United States and the world have prospered in the fifty years since then. 

In his interview on Bloomberg, Garten mentioned that there are some similarities between 1971 and today.  Financial conditions are unsettled today and there is a potential big change in the offing, in the form of cybercurrencies.  I don’t think that Bitcoin is necessarily the future of cybercurrencies, but I think some new form of it may be, probably a currency connected in some way to a central national bank, or maybe several central banks.  It may use blockchain, or some new improvement for authenticating transactions that uses less energy.  Will Bitcoin be to the new cybercurrency what gold is to the dollar?  I doubt it, but it could be.  Many people are betting that it will be. 

Will a new international conference set up a new system, as Bretton Woods did after World War II?  Or will individual nations set up their own mechanisms as Nixon did in 1971?