Beth Simmons’s realism


Beth Simmons’s Mobilizing for Human Rights: International Law in Domestic Politics(Cambridge, 2009) has been celebrated as the most significant work in the field in many years. And the reception of the book is generally well deserved. As most people know, Simmons brings extraordinary quantitative rigor to the topic of whether several human rights treaties make a difference. Along the way, earlier studies are acknowledged and put in their place (including Oona Hathaway’s, which offered the disquieting suggestion that “insincere ratifiers” may play on the expressive benefits of their accession to treaties and then go on to violate the underlying norms more than ever). Though Simmons can only assert correlation and is generally very cautious about the impact of human rights treaties, her main finding that they are likely a positive thing for the world is surely as significant as it is persuasive.

But how positive?

As significant a feature of Simmons’s book, I want to suggest, is how it enacts a politics and strategy in its own right — in spite of the dispassionate social scientific analysis clothing the book and accounting for its success in disciplinary terms. As a proposed model for how to best conceptualize the topic, Mobilizing for Human Rights explicitly competes with other views both within and beyond political science that posit that human rights politics may not provide enough positive benefits. Outside more narrowly academic contention, Simmons’s approach has definite implications for where to look for moral progress, and the forms it could plausibly take, and thus how to pursue it now. Yet it is just here that the book is not fully persuasive. By and large, my worry is that the politics and strategy of the book work as much to marginalize calls for more radical ventures as to give credit to international law where it is due. A justifiable call to recognize the occasional help international human rights treaties provide ends up making it analytically very difficult, and politically fruitless, to imagine help from anywhere else.

Simmons is refreshingly honest about how limited her defense of international human rights ultimately is. At the end of her study, she persuasively suggests that the modest differences that she claims international treaties regimes provide still matter, even if they do not “solve all problems” (366). “Only the most cycloptic individuals,” Simmons writes in one of the most spirited passages in her otherwise staid book, “see only problems that the law addresses and view law as the only tool to deal with them” (368). Yet the fact remains that Simmons is so intent on vindicating the limited relevance of human rights treaties that her analysis can’t help but bear implications about what alternatives to them are available, whether as a supplement or a substitute.

This first post looks at Simmons’s pessimism about international political transformation, as a prelude to later entries about the instability of her argument about the relationship between human rights and local norms and the success of her claim that domestic politics provides the fund of optimism for international human rights law that the international forum itself does not. Pessimism turns out to pervade her account, but nowhere in so open and unambiguous a way as in her views about the unalterability of international politics.

Among other things, Simmons’s pessimistic realism shows that the heady days of the 1990s are long gone, and indeed her book helps the field transcend the mistaken optimism of that time when it was common to repose millennial hopes in human rights. On close inspection, her book is premised on the nearly phobic avoidance of any grandiose optimism that human rights politics might fundamentally transform international politics soon or ever. In this sense, Simmons’s book returns the field to the minor claims for improvement with which international human rights mobilization began — what one observer memorably called “salvation in small steps.” Yet there is no salvation, even in small steps, to be found in international affairs. Startlingly, Simmons is as much of a realist with respect to the international order as she is a constructivist with respect to domestic politics. Like many in the afterglow of the 1990s who struggle to find relevance for international human rights in a world in which national interest self-evidently persists, Simmons’s praise for human rights treaties proceeds based on a large amount of overlap with conservative realists who see nothing else but national interest in world affairs.

Actually, her realism leads Simmons to a generally canny and often subversive cynicism about the realities of a world order in which great powers rule the United Nations Security Council and states make up international governance organizations. Her view of the impact of human rights treaties and indeed human rights politics in the international sphere is unremittingly negative. Of all the attempts to “depoliticize” human rights monitoring and enforcement at the United Nations in the last twenty years – in particular, through the move to the Human Rights Council, the drastic expansion of so-called special procedures, and the proliferation of expert bodies that most international human rights treaties bring about – Simmons concludes that they are by and large unworthy of much respect. Ultimately, she thinks, the United Nations is an organization created of, by, and for states. Simmons is blunt: “Globally centralized enforcement is a chimera” (154). Given the fact that states behave as realists predict in their external affairs, even causes with the patina of moral legitimacy are best explained according to realist principles. Thus in another passage, Simmons predicts why international human rights enforcement if it takes place will occur only when compelling national interests are not at stake or when they concur in the results (hence recent Middle Eastern history). “The targets of … enforcement efforts,” Simmons writes, “are generally small countries whose sanctioning imposes no important costs for the would-be enforcer” (122). She claims that “the interstate vantage point does not provide a lot of reason for optimism,” but it is fairer to say that, from that vantage point, her book provides no reason for optimism at all (114).

Yet it is still a serious question why, when she breaks with this pessimistic realism in order to hope international human rights norms have traction nonetheless, Simmons looks exclusively to domestic politics. Human rights offer “a real politics of change,” in her phrase, just not in the international order. Her descriptive claim is that human rights, at least through treaties, create “stakeholders” only or “almost exclusively” domestically (126). In saying so, she makes an implicit political judgment about the past and possible constituencies for transnational politics. As far as I can tell, Simmons never defends this judgment.

When it comes to domestic politics, of course, Simmons drops her realism and becomes a constructivist who thinks the legal obligation that treaties layer over moral norms is worth studying and highlighting. It is never spelled out, however, why Simmons assumes staunchly realist premises for the sake of international order even as she regards the domestic forum as a much more promising space for moral norms to recast identity and interest. Accordingly, Simmons ignores the role of alliances of states have played, including at particularly promising moments in post-World War II history, in reshaping the international order as it has been inherited, or could play in the future. And she only acknowledges in passing the role of transnational justice movements, reducing their role to a tutelary one as they intercede to abet domestic politics. As I will pursue in a future post, the place to look for hope, Simmons says, is in domestic transformation along the lines of the U.S. civil rights movement, even though it went unaided by the international treaties her book is about. Meanwhile, though many have lionized it for bringing about a global human rights movement, Simmons unceremoniously dismisses the transnational Helsinki network (whose history Sarah Snyder narrates in a new book) as “much vaunted” – perhaps because it doesn’t fit the story Simmons wishes to tell about the exclusively domestic effects of strictly binding international human rights treaties (7). (To be fair, Simmons does mention in passing elsewhere in the book the transnational alliances that other scholars have covered, restricting their relevance to the isolation of highly repressive regimes [372].)

I don’t mean to defend historical or existing transnational movements for the great difference they have already made. Instead, the point is that Simmons accepts the existing interstate order as the set framework for any available optimism, leading her then inside states in search of the last available forum for progress. Put differently, Simmons’s turn to domestic politics as the place where international human rights politics might providentially matter after all, after her acid skepticism about international affairs, is based on a prior decision that international politics can be reshaped, if at all, solely through the internal politics of each individual domestic forum. In this sense, it seems as if Simmons’s constructivism proceeds on the basis of a prior realism. Optimism is snatched from the jaws of a more basic defeatism.

In my subsequent posts I will offer some thoughts about Simmons’s views about the domestic implications of international human rights treaties, regarded as the sole and slim basis for hope that international human rights politics might profoundly improve the human condition. For one thing, Simmons is genuinely undecided about how much difference human rights treaties make with respect to the prior identities and interests of domestic constituencies that turn to them as political tools. And when it comes to that social mobilization, the net effect of Simmons’s analysis, I will try to suggest, is to obscure its historical conditions and ideological variety. As a result, I will worry, her impressive book saves the relevance of international human rights treaties at the very high price of obfuscating the historical forces that in fact lead to progressive change — as well as its alternative possible and imaginable forms.

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About Samuel Moyn

Samuel Moyn is JHenry R. Luce Professor of Jurisprudence at Yale Law School and professor of history at Yale University. He has written several books in his fields of European intellectual history and human rights history, including The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Harvard, 2010), and edited or coedited a number of others. His most recent books are Christian Human Rights (Penn, 2015), based on Mellon Distinguished Lectures at the University of Pennsylvania in fall 2014, and Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World (Harvard, 2018).