The book traces the role of human rights concerns in US foreign policy during the 1980s, focusing on the struggle among the Reagan administration and members of Congress. It demonstrates how congressional pressure led the administration to reconsider its approach to human rights and craft a conservative human rights policy centered on democracy promotion and anti-communism – a decision which would have profound implications for American attention to human rights.

    Based on extensive archival research and interviews, it combines a comprehensive overview of human rights in American foreign relations with in-depth case studies of how human rights shaped US foreign policy toward Soviet Jewry, South African apartheid, and Nicaragua.

    Tracing the motivations behind human rights activism, the book demonstrates how liberals and conservatives selectively invoked human rights to further their agendas, ultimately contributing to establish human rights as a core moral language in US foreign policy.

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Endorsements and Reviews

'In explaining how idealists in Congress forced the Reagan administration to embrace and recast human rights, Søndergaard reveals how profoundly the trajectory of US human rights policy was determined by contestation between the executive and the legislature. This richly researched book illuminates a poorly understood decade in the development of international human rights and recovers the role of overlooked actors, both in Congress and outside government.'


Barbara Keys, Durham University

'An engaging and original contribution to our understanding of the place of human rights in US foreign policy in the 1980s. Rasmus Søndergaard is particularly effective in highlighting the significance of the newly-formed Congressional Human Rights Caucus (CHRC) and articulating what a 'conservative' human rights policy meant during the Reagan years.'

Sarah B. Snyder, American University

'Søndergaard makes an important contribution to our understanding of human rights in US Cold War foreign relations. Drawing on deep archival research, Reagan, Congress, and Human Rights convincingly illuminates how legislators on both sides of the political aisle influenced the Reagan administration's approach to the defining human rights issues of the 1980s.'

William Michael Schmidli, Leiden University

'This excellent study examines how Congress asserted a role in incorporating human rights into the [Reagan] administration's foreign policy, especially through the bipartisan Congressional Human Rights Caucus (CHRC). Søndergaard analyzes the limits of Congress's role, including partisan divisions, presidential dominance in foreign policy, external actors, and the complexity of specific issues. [...] Summing Up: Recommended. General readers; upper-division undergraduates through faculty.'

Andrew J. Dunar, University of Alabama

'Reagan, Congress, and Human Rights contributes to a greater understanding of congressional human rights activism during the 1980s and how opposition on human rights grounds was part of a broader congressional challenge to executive power in the foreign policy arena.'

Theresa Keeley, University of Louisville

'Reagan, Congress, and Human Rights is a superbly researched, uniquely argued, and notably well-written contribution to the modern history of human rights.'

Michael Franczak, University of Pennsylvania

This new book by Rasmus Sinding Søndergaard reflects excellent work in U.S. Congressional archives and provides reliable accounts of important developments in U.S. foreign policy during the presidency of Ronald Reagan.'

Doug Rossinow, Metropolitan State University

'By focusing on a number of distinct case studies, this piece clearly demonstrates that the way in which human rights ideals influenced Reagan’s foreign policy in some areas was not necessarily replicated in others. [...] The argument that it was the Congressional assertion of the importance of human rights that forced the Administration to make it a significant part of its foreign policy agenda is compelling. That this assertion was bipartisan and only contested in terms of the location of its application, rather than the principle itself, makes this argument all the more intriguing.' 

Mark Hurst, Lancaster University

'Søndergaard has done an admirable job of showing just how malleable the concept of human rights had become at the turn of the 1980s, as the Reagan administration’s impromptu creation of a “conservative human rights policy” highlights.'

Christian Ruth, Univeristy of Albany-SUNY