On Values vs. Interests

The relationship between values and interests in foreign policy is complex and nuanced, but putting the former ahead of the latter is a recipe for disaster.

Foreign policy has always been a balance between two major factors: values and interests. Prior to the modern era, that balance was struck by an individual – generally the monarch – and his advisors, who were unaccountable to the public but for exceptional situations. That made the calculation far more simple, as did the fact that values rarely came to the forefront in an age of despotism and conquest. The exception to that rule was the influence of religion, which was used as justification for external policy for thousands of years, from the Roman crushing of the Jewish revolts to the Islamic conquest of infidel lands to the myriad Crusades which recurred throughout the Medieval period. Still, those values often coincided with interests; for example, the Crusades were also about trade routes, Byzantine geopolitical security, and personal prestige. At other times, strong values were overcome by national interests, as they were when France, led by the indefatigable Cardinal Richelieu, allied with Protestant powers in the Thirty Years War against their fellow Catholics, the Habsburgs of Spain and Austria.

The balance became far more complex and difficult in the age of mass democracy, liberal capitalism, and human rights, where national values grew in importance, especially in the United States and other Western powers. The era of universal values and rights ushered in by the Enlightenment and the American and French Revolutions brought foreign policy idealism into the realm of reality, where values and high ideals are privileged above supposedly base considerations of interests. Politicians and movements around the world embraced this idealism, from American President Woodrow Wilson to the international communist movement. In reality, however, idealism – the hyperfocus on values – has consistently been an abject failure for national interests. In the case of Wilson, his Fourteen Points promoting national self-determination were foundational to the post-WWI period and, despite their intention to promote peace in Europe, led into the even greater disaster of World War II. A foreign policy focused too much on interests, however, can lead to similarly bad outcomes and compromises; Nixon’s opening to China was canny strategically, but also bolstered Mao in the middle of the devastating Cultural Revolution. As with so much of life and politics, balance is critical and different situations call for different tactical approaches.

That brings me to the event which inspired this post, a tweet from the prominent left-wing useful idiot and critic of American foreign policy (who lives in Brazil), Glenn Greenwald. That Twitter thread, the first portion of which is below, claims that US aid to Ukraine is illegitimate and counterproductive because it supports a government which has curtailed civil liberties. Greenwald states – accurately – that Ukraine’s government has compiled a “blacklist” of foreigners it sees as denigrating its war effort and has prohibited them from entering the country; also, earlier this year and in 2021, Ukraine banned certain Russian media companies from operating on its territory. These actions were labeled by Greenwald as “suppress[ing] dissent” and “smearing journalists and citizens” who “dared question [Ukraine’s] demands for endless war support.” In this respect, he is pushing a line of extreme idealism and a myopic focus on values over interests.

Of course, it is not good for a country in normal circumstances to punish or ban those who oppose government policy. But as you well know, Ukraine is not at all in a normal situation and hasn’t been since the Russian invasion of its territory began in 2014 and expanded earlier this year. As of this writing, Ukraine is locked in a military struggle for its very existence. Under these conditions, government suppression of dissent and curtailment of some civil liberties is not only to be expected, it is reasonable on national security grounds. There is a long history of governments engaged in total war curtailing domestic liberties during crisis: Britain in WWI, the Allies in WWII, and, famously, the Union in the American Civil War. The President who led that drastic suppression of civil liberties during the 1860s, Abraham Lincoln, is almost universally regarded as one of the nation’s greatest leaders and national heroes. If we require our foreign policy to have a higher standard than the one we (rightfully) lionized Lincoln for, we are truly making the perfect the enemy of the good.

If America only supported those countries and governments which perfectly lived up to our extremely high standards of human rights and civil liberties, we would be unilaterally isolating ourselves from 90 percent of the world and throwing away our hard-won global hegemony. Not only would we be unable to work with important regimes in Europe, Asia, and Africa, we wouldn’t even be able to have relations with the nations in our own hemispheric backyard! Greenwald’s standard is utterly absurd in the world of reality, even if supporting Ukraine was not in our national interest; fortunately, supporting the Ukrainian effort against the Russian invader is directly good for our national interests and provides an incredible value proposition – bang for the buck, if you will.

Historically, carefully working alongside regimes with which we share more interests than we do values has been very useful for both American interests and American values. For instance, take our defense of South Korea during and since the Korean War of the 1950s. At the time of the North’s invasion and for decades afterward, South Korea was essentially a military dictatorship with relatively few civil rights. It was not close to as repressive as were the regimes in Pyongyang or Beijing, but committed its fair share of human rights violations nonetheless. Our consistent support for the nation of South Korea and our military involvement in the country helped it remain secure, progress rapidly in terms of commerce and industry, and eventually to democratize into the advanced democratic nation it is today. By contrast, North Korea remains a global backwater, flush with totalitarian-induced poverty and constant repression. One can hope that our continued engagement with the relatively-friendly Arab monarchies and dictatorships of the Middle East will have a similarly salutary effect. But even if it doesn’t, or if it takes decades to materialize, working with those regimes to counter Iranian and Russian aggression in the region is well within America’s interests.

With respect to Ukraine, this calculus is far easier and the correct approach quite obvious. We are supporting a sovereign nation which lags behind much of Europe with respect to civil rights, but is a genuine participatory democracy and is on a path towards European integration and greater liberalism. That nation is being forcibly invaded (again) by its former imperial occupier, a highly repressive country which is led by a kleptocratic dictator (Vladimir Putin), is far worse on civil rights than is Ukraine, and has no just cause whatsoever for its aggression. The choice to support Ukraine in this conflict is clear, despite its deficits in civil liberties. American interests would be satisfied and protected in no other way.

In foreign policy, interests need to be properly balanced with values. Unlike Glenn Greenwald, I’m more than willing to acknowledge the need for hard choices which privilege interests ahead of values. To slightly amend a famous phrase, international relations ain’t beanbag. It would do well for the anti-American isolationists on both right and left to remember that lesson.

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