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Monday, February 28, 2011

"Better" outcomes- self interest and idealism in American Foreign Policy

In my last Post, I wrote about the uncertainty that certain foreign policy actions by our Government would lead to "better" long term outcomes.  I did not define "better", but that, of course, is a central question.  What should the Government of the United States by trying to achieve with its foreign policy?  In the long term as well as the short term.  My answer below is, admittedly general, but I think makes an importan point or points.

Historically, a great many scholars have write about the intertwining and tension between the ideas of "idealism" and "self interest" in American foreign policy.  It started with the founders and continues today. Today, you get the simple version of my own, non expert, opinion, to wit:

1. The principal foreign policy goal of American foreign policy should be to advance the self interests of the United States of America (not exactly the same as the interests the American people, and certainly not the same as the interests of the current Government of the United States of America, but those are pretty meaningless distinctions for the purposes of this Post, and two that can - and have been - argued by lots of people).

The principal goal of any State is to protect itself and its citizens.  Read the preamble to the Constitution.  It's about protecting the American people and their rights.  However, to effectively do so, the State (any State) must both continue to exist and be as strong in relation to the rest of the world as it can be.  This strength may be military, moral, economic or whatever, but if the State is to effectively protect the interests of its people in a world environment filled with terrorists, dictators and other economies, it should be as strong as possible.  Whether and how it should use that strength is another question.  And of course, there are cost/benefit constraints which are very real.

Other States really make no bones about this.  America, however, was very consciously founded on the idea that certain political ideas and structures were intrinsically universally good.  The original big ideals (and we have tweaked and added to them) were a) liberty/freedom from Government interference and coercion, b)self determination, and c) a democratic form of government. (The latter two relate to the idea that Government should be based on "the consent of the governed").  I plan to discuss these ideas and how they have developed more specifically in a later post, but for the moment assume that we have long wanted to "push" the idea that democracy and self determination are good.  "Freedom" is a bit trickier, as it requires some definition of "freedom to what".  However, despite number 3 below, I am putting this "desire to spread the word" behind self-interest in importance as a foreign policy goal.

(Where I'm heading, as you may have guessed, is the issue of how we should deal with Governments that support the current international goals of the United States, but range from benign to not-so benign dictatorships.  Two good examples are former President Hosni Mubarek of Egypt and the current King of Bahrain.)

2. However, that goal - promoting self interest - should recognize long-term as well as short term self interests.  To put it simply, it's not wise to back eventual losers.  Unpopular, corrupt and minority-dominated governments are often perceived to be less stable in the long term.  All of the Middle Eastern rulers now at risk (unless you put Iran on that list) have been supportive of the U.S. war on terrorists and have been at least reasonably supportive of U.S. policy vis-a-vis Israel.  Here we have a dilemma; we want and need support of our short term interests, like the war on terrorists.  If we don't get it, it is more likely that the terrorists will succeed in blowing up or otherwise killing more Americans.  To be avoided.  So we almost have to support less-than-wonderful people. (This is not new; we have long supported all sorts of dubious people, including the Taliban, strictly because they were anti-Communist).  But our long term interests suggest this could become a problem in that successful revolutionary forces are quite likely to blame the United States for supporting the old regimes.  It's not a problem with an obvious solution, and that's even before we get to point No. 3.

3. It is in the the long term self interest of the United States  to actively promote American political ideals and systems to the rest of the world.  Advocating these ideals because they are "right" or "moral" is reasonable, but that's not my point here.  Self interest is. 

First, I believe (and it may be wishful thinking) that democratically elected governments are more peaceful and stable in the long run, and thus, make better friends and partners. 

Second, such Governments are more similar to our own, and thus are likely to be more sympathetic to our own ideas and interests, and to work with us in promoting our ideals. 

Third, America is still a moral force; large numbers of people and throughout the world really expect us to do the "right thing", whether it benefits us or not.  It gives us at least some moral credibility that other nations do not have.  Although we've done a lot to damage that over the years, and some people just plain hate us (in part because of the threat of our ideals), it seems to me that the rest of the world (as well as our own people) expect us to act morally-which is reflected by the fact they become so angry when they believe we are not.  Having moral credibility is in our self interest. I'm not going to bother to explain that one unless people ask me to.

Fourth, we, the American people, need to believe that we are acting idealistically.  Our ideals are a large part of what makes us a Nation.  Citizens of other States often base their national identity on a common language or religion or ethnic background or long history or even on who their enemies are.   We really don't.  Our Nation was consciously founded - artificially created - based on certain political ideas.  While we have come to share a common language and culture, we are an acknowledged nation of immigrants who adopted that language and culture after we arrived here.  My grandparents emigrated to this country in the early twentieth century, but Washington, Jefferson and Madison are my Founding Fathers.  Viscerally, they belong to me as much as they do to someone descended from the revolutionaries.  The main thing that holds us together in a sort-of-spiritual sense is certain shared political values.  Even if we don't agree (to put it mildly) on what all of those values are, a real (or perceived?) belief in democracy, freedom and self determination is a large part of what makes us Americans.

4. Another long term self interest of the United States is in promoting the belief that we do not abandon our "friends".  Back to Mubarek and the King of Bahrain.  If we want leaders to support us, it's not a good idea to appear to abandon them or throw them to the wolves when the going gets tough, simply because the next King or Dictator from whom we seek support may well take that into consideration.  We've become spoiled since 1989 or so, as perhaps the only game in town.  Not necessarily true anymore, given the economic and military rise of China.  Another dilemma.

The result is that our Government, of whatever party, has to walk several lines.  We have to seek support on certain critical issues - like terrorism - wherever it can be found, but we have to try to avoid backing "bad guys", but we (maybe) have to show some loyalty to those very "bad guys".  Not an easy task. 

My complaint is not about the Government here, it's about my fellow citizens, who think all of these choices are easy and self-evident.  My point is that, even with a primarily self-interest analysis,  it's both complicated and hard.


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