Congress and President Jimmy Carter made enough of human rights as a central tenet of American diplomacy so that subsequent chief executives could not ignore the issue entirely, regardless of how little attention they really wanted to give the matter. The Reagan administration, for example, took Kissinger's emphasis on geographical, strategic, and political considerations, combined that with its own brand of politically conservative, fervent anticommunism, and added the requisite dose of human rights rhetoric in castigating the Soviet Union, all the while supporting right-wing dictators throughout the world. The spokesperson for the administration on this topic was the ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick. In a 1979 article she had criticized the Carter administration for failing to discern the difference between authoritarian (good) and totalitarian (bad) regimes around the world. The former were to be embraced as friends and allies, because of their ability eventually to change and their present inflexibility when it came to communism. The latter regimes not only would not change, they were communist. Matters of human rights abuses by authoritarian leaders were far less important in her schematic than their willingness to tow the anti-communist line. This was the theoretical framework the administration wanted to employ in its support of right-wing dictators.
The Reagan administration, therefore, offered its full support for repressive governments in places like El Salvador and Guatemala. In both countries the administration lied and covered up numerous atrocities and human rights abuses by the military, all in the name of supporting anticommunism. But from President Reagan's perspective, his predecessor's policies had fared no better. In a 1981 interview with Walter Cronkite, Reagan said with respect to the Carter administration's contradictory behavior on human rights, "We took countries that were pro-Western, that were maybe authoritarian in government, but not totalitarian … [that] did not meet all of our principles of what constitutes human rights, and we punished them at the same time that we were claiming detente with countries where there are no human rights." Secretary of State George P. Shultz assessed the situation similarly. He pointed to the differences between the East and West on moral principles, principles from which their basic policies arose. He argued that human rights could not be used to spurn other nations. That was a cop-out, he insisted, stating that although it made certain Americans feel better about themselves in their righteous indignation, it did not promote the kind of real change that improved human rights. On the contrary, according to Kirkpatrick and Shultz, U.S. pressure on Iran, Nicaragua, and South Vietnam in the 1970s to conform to certain human rights practices brought about these regimes' downfalls, which decidedly worsened the day-to-day circumstances faced by the millions of peoples in those countries.
The practical test for the Reagan administration position came in South Africa, where the administration took to the idea of working with the apartheid regime in the hope of bringing about affirmative changes in race relations there. Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Chester Crocker coined the term "constructive engagement" when discussing the administration's policy toward the white minority government. The idea was to reassure the South African leaders of American support in their time of transition to democracy. That was the option preferred by the administration; the other was to isolate South Africa through sanctions in an effort to force the situation. Congress, as it had during the 1970s, took a more activist position and in 1986 passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, which imposed economic sanctions on South Africa until significant changes were made, in direct opposition to the Reagan administration's constructive engagement policy.
Elsewhere, the Reagan administration appeared to have better luck, though not because of its dedication to constructive engagement or democratic principles. In the Philippines, longtime dictator Ferdinand Marcos stepped aside and allowed the election of Corazon Aquino in 1986, but the principal impetus for change came from the Filipinos. Reagan hesitated at key moments until the matter was all but decided.
The Bush administration made much the same argument on constructive engagement with respect to China in 1989, even after the government had cracked down on the Tiananmen Square protestors, using the People's Liberation Army to crush them on 3 June. Bush secretly sent two high-ranking advisers—National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger—to Beijing on 30 June to assure the Chinese leadership that his administration still intended to promote Sino-American relations once the furor over Tiananmen died down. The president sent the two to China again in December, the same month that the administration announced the release of $300 million in business contracts between American corporations and the Chinese government that had been suspended in the wake of Tiananmen. The administration was intent on downplaying human rights violations.
On 20 December 1989 the United States invaded Panama. The official reasons floated for the invasion ranged from harassment by Panamanian Defense Forces of American military officials (and their wives), to Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega's involvement with drug trafficking, to human rights violations. The drug connection was well-known in the early 1980s, but Noriega then cleaned up his act to the point where he received a letter from the Drug Enforcement Agency in 1986 that thanked him for his cooperation in stopping the drug trade. The last of the reasons given was a sheer fabrication, since the Bush administration was more than willing to ignore much more serious human rights violations in China and Iraq or, closer to home, in El Salvador and Guatemala.