A New Book Presents a Roadmap for Achieving Human Rights for All

In Human Rights for Pragmatists, Jack Snyder demonstrates that where local power and politics lead, rights follow.

Eve Glasberg
January 04, 2023

Human rights are among today’s most pressing issues, yet rights promoters have reached an impasse in their efforts to achieve rights for all. Human Rights for Pragmatists: Social Power in Modern Times, the new book by Jack Snyder, the Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Relations in the Department of Political Science, explains why: Activists prioritize universal legal and moral norms, backed by the public shaming of violators, but rights prevail only when they serve the interests of powerful local constituencies. Snyder demonstrates that where local power and politics lead, rights follow. He presents an innovative roadmap for addressing a broad agenda of human rights concerns—impunity for atrocities, dilemmas of free speech in the age of social media, entrenched abuses of women’s rights, and more.

By exploring the historical development of human rights around the globe, Snyder shows that liberal rights–based states have experienced a competitive edge over authoritarian regimes in the modern era. He focuses on the role of power, the interests of individuals and the groups they form, and the dynamics of bargaining and coalitions among those groups. The path to human rights entails transitioning from a social order grounded in patronage and favoritism to one dedicated to equal treatment under impersonal rules. Rights flourish when they benefit dominant local actors with the clout to persuade ambivalent peers. Activists, policymakers, and others attempting to advance rights should embrace a tailored strategy, one that acknowledges local power structures and cultural practices.

Snyder elaborates on his book with Columbia News, and also recommends recent books by several Columbia colleagues, and explains why he would like to share a meal with several deceased colleagues whom he misses.

Why did you write this book?

Mainstream human rights activists typically attribute the signature successes of their movement to their uncompromisingly principled stance on behalf of the weak and the exploited. Naming and shaming and ending impunity loom large in their lore. This attitude of high dudgeon works well to recruit idealistic activists, but their moralism, legalism, and secular universalism miss the central role of the self-interest of the majority in powering the progress of human rights.

Basic civic and legal rights were backed by the rise of the capitalist middle class; social and economic rights expanded along with the might of organized labor. Each of these movements gained leverage and resonance from broad-based religious networks and themes. A core of idealists defined aspirational goals, but progress depended on support from majority mass movements and reform parties that gained power through expedient compromise.

At the present juncture, the human rights enterprise is facing fierce pushback from illiberal strongmen and populists who counter-shame the liberal order as decadent, degenerate, and threatening to deeply rooted values. Too often, contemporary rights rhetoric plays into the hands of these illiberal critics. This is a contest that is too important to lose. So far, rights-based forms of modern social organization are the only ones that have succeeded in sustaining social peace and prosperity beyond the middle-income trap. Illiberal models of modernity are ominously recapitulating the patterns of the failed, destructive authoritarian powers of the past. My motivation in writing the book was to understand better how rights-based societies could recover a more accurate narrative of their past pragmatic successes, repair their own flaws, and withstand illiberal challenges.

Human Rights for Pragmatists by Columbia University Professor Jack Snyder

Can you provide some examples from the book of tangible steps that address a broad range of human rights concerns?

 My recommendations warn against hard sell tactics pushing unfamiliar progressive norms onto societies that lack an adequate social and institutional basis to adopt them successfully. Such efforts are easily tagged with the label of alien imperialism. A better strategy is to first reform the flaws in the liberal order in a way that will induce other states to walk through an open door to voluntarily join the rights-based system. For example, the degeneration of the liberal marketplace of ideas now floods not only our own societies, but much of the world with disinformation, defamation, incitement, and hate speech.

Free speech absolutists like to quote Justice Louis Brandeis’s dictum that if speech is a problem, the solution is more speech, but improving the quality of discourse requires constructive regulation, just as economic markets require rules against fraud and monopolies. U.S. media markets worked better when professional journalists (protected by the First Amendment) exercised their news judgment over mass media under the arm’s-length guidance of the Federal Communications Commission’s erstwhile fairness doctrine, which required broadcasters to provide balanced, comprehensive coverage of important public issues. If powerful rights-based societies fix their own flaws, other states will be more inclined to join the liberal club and adhere to its standards.

Another running theme of my book is that rights promoters should pay more attention to widely popular issues, such as anti-corruption, while being tactically circumspect about pushing controversial issues in places where they will trigger more backlash than compliance. About a third of worldwide mass protests in recent years have targeted corruption. Almost all of these protests were initiated by local civic groups. Transnational human rights groups weigh in only if and when the state cracks down on protesters’ rights to freedom of speech and assembly. International lawyers waffle on whether there is a human right not to be victimized by corrupt officials. 

What books have you read lately that you would recommend, and why?

My colleague Nicholas Lemann’s engrossingly readable book, Transaction Man: The Rise of the Deal and the Decline of the American Dream, traces the evolution of American capitalists from the 1950s era of the organization man, who felt some responsibility to his workers and society, to our own era’s cutthroat financiers and masters of hostile takeovers. Vivid in its depiction of individual characters as well as management systems, Lemann’s tale helped shape my own book’s critique of the shift from the socially embedded liberalism of the post-1945 welfare states to the libertarian era of global deregulation. Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter underscores the importance and timeliness of Lemann’s book.

What's next on your reading list?

I’m looking forward to reading a new book by another colleague, Sarah Zukerman Daly: Violent Victors: Why Bloodstained Parties Win Postwar Elections.

Are there any classics that you have only recently read for the first time?

Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God depicts communities and characters that are teeming with life and ambition. No invisible men here. I felt that this outlook was in tune with my take on human rights arising from people’s own initiative and interest.

What are you working on now?

Inspired by a rereading of Robert Jervis’s classic book, System Effects, I am hoping to write about change in the international system—the theory of how it happens with applications to contemporary processes of systemic change.

What are you teaching this semester?

I’m teaching an undergrad seminar on international security (the rise of China, nuclear weapons, the absence of war between democracies, gender and security), and a graduate seminar on international relations theory in which the syllabus is peppered with the writings of our own successful former students.

You're hosting a dinner party. Which three academics/scholars, dead or alive, would you invite, and why?

My kneejerk reaction is to say Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Emile Durkheim. I remember advice I got early in my career: Any incantation mentioning these three founders of social science would provide an effective escape route whenever an opponent in an argument cornered me with superior logic and evidence.

But my real answer is my late colleagues Charles Tilly, Alfred Stepan, and Robert Jervis, who remain so vivid in my memory that I can easily imagine the dinner party. They disagreed about a lot, so the party would be lively indeed.