US Security Assistance, Terrorism Threats, and Public Support for Human Rights Abroad

US security assistance frequently flows to the militaries of abusive, autocratic governments. While officials typically justify these relationships on the basis of security interests such as terrorism threats, human rights organizations contest them by arguing that they implicate the United States in severe violations of human rights. This paper reports results from an experiment designed to test how these competing concerns shape public opinion toward security assistance policies. Though the results demonstrate a preference for democratic partners with good human rights records, the preference weakens when terrorism threats become salient. This pattern is concentrated among internationalist respondents, suggesting that foreign policy elites, who typically hold internationalist views, may be particularly likely to abandon their commitment to human rights-oriented policies in the shadow of security threats. Theoretically, the study contributes to understanding of when and for whom human rights concerns are more likely to shape foreign policy preferences. Practically, the results highlight the importance of contesting rights abuses in terms of their negative repercussions for US security interests in cases where security threats are salient.