Why is the US so reluctant to ratify and apply multilateral human rights treaties? Compared to most advanced industrial democracies, the US still refuses to formally accept nearly all widely accepted international legal human rights norms and uniformly rejects legal enforcement of those norms within its borders, whether by international or domestic means. This is a paradox in a country with a robust tradition of domestic civil rights enforcement and a vigorous record of unilateral (even often multilateral) action abroad to promote human rights. The resulting ambivalence on the part of the US is now a striking exception among Western democracies and has been the target of criticism from domestic civil libertarians and foreign governments as being inconsistent, hypocritical and cynical.
How is this paradoxical policy mix to be explained? Explanations for US non-adherence can usefully be divided into two broad categories. The most common category contains explanations that stress the enduring, broadly-based "rights culture" of the US--the particular political ideals and notions of procedural propriety distinctive to the US.
An alternative category comprises "pluralist" explanations, which stress partisan and material political interests, as filtered through American political institutions. I shall argue that the second sort of explanation--and, in particular, the combination of superpower status, democratic stability, concentrated conservative opposition, and fragmented political institutions--best accounts for this form of US unilateralism.
Although the object of considerable speculation, the causes of US exceptionalism in human rights constitute, above all, an empirical question of history and social science. There are numerous prima facie plausible explanations--many of them consistent with the (often opportunistic) rhetoric of politicians with regard to human rights commitments. The difficult and more essential task is to locate and interpret empirical evidence that bears on this question. The best such evidence concerns neither the crude fact of US non-adherence nor...