November 2022 has been a busy month in terms of international affairs. We’ve seen continuing protests against the theocratic regime in Iran, major counteroffensives by Ukraine against Russia, and the COP27 global climate conference in Egypt. In this Foreign Telegram, we discuss all three – recapping recent events, analyzing their impact, and explaining why you should care about each. So sit back, relax, and enjoy this tour around the world of foreign policy!
The Biden Administration is getting played by Xi Jinping and flirting with national disaster in its geopolitical handling of China.
Earlier this week, President Joe Biden met with China’s dictator Xi Jinping for nearly 3 hours in Bali, Indonesia at the G20 Summit of nations. The meeting has been described by analysts as a boon for future cooperation between the nations and their leaders on major transnational issues and a positive step away from tension and towards engagement. According to the Biden administration, the discussion cemented the idea on both sides of the Pacific that conflict is not coming and that a new Cold War is indeed not in the cards. The Biden administration is touting this as a genuine diplomatic success and a move towards stability in East Asia, and has praised President Biden’s warm personal relationship with Xi. From reading major news reports of this meeting, you’d think that the US and China are on a glide path towards better relations in the short and long term, under the joint leadership of Xi and Biden – a big step towards mutual security after the chaos of the Trump administration.
Unfortunately for us, that framing is inaccurate in the extreme. This meeting makes us no safer, gives us no positive assurances from China, and betrays the Biden administration’s terribly naïve instincts on foreign affairs.
In episode 3 of the Rational Policy Podcast, host Mike Coté premieres a new recurring format – the Foreign Telegram. In this Foreign Telegram, for October 2022, Mike discusses three major topics in international affairs that have been on his mind over the past few weeks: Italian elections, Iranian protests, and the escalating Russo-Ukrainian War. Starting off, Italy’s recent parliamentary elections are briefly explored and mainstream narratives about the right-wing victors debunked. The reaction to this event is a microcosm of the broader trend over the past decade or so of populist issues being overlooked by the EU. Next, Mike talks about the growing anti-regime protests in Iran which were sparked by the religious police killing of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman, for the “crime” of improper hijab. He recaps the situation, analyzes the potential impact, and lays out several suggestions for US policy. Also touched on are some common criticisms of this hawkish and direct approach. Lastly, the escalating war in Ukraine is broken down and major recent events explained, from the Ukrainian counteroffensives, to the Russian mobilization and annexation of Ukrainian territory. Mike also considers the Nord Stream pipeline sabotage, the nuclear rhetoric emanating from Moscow (and isolationist reactions), and what may happen next. Tune in for this comprehensive session on foreign policy and America’s role in responding to recent events.
As protests against the Iranian regime escalate yet again, will the US stand against the totalitarian theocrats in Tehran or continue to appease them?
For the third time in just over a decade, the Iranian people are bravely protesting against their dictatorial regime and the indignities it forces upon them. In June 2009, the Green Movement erupted in Tehran after a widely-disputed election returned the regime-approved favorite Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president. The next day, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to register their dissent and contest the (likely bogus) election results; the protestors were angry about the state of the economy, the regime’s costly foreign adventurism, and the clear disregard for the will of the people. Students, middle-class workers, and young people drove the movement, which lasted through the end of 2009. In news that wouldn’t shock anyone, the protests were brutally repressed, with thousands of arrests, hundreds of killings, and televised show trials reminiscent of the Stalin era.
Ten years later, anti-regime protests broke out again, this time triggered by an “abrupt increase of at least 50 percent in gasoline prices.” The protestors were mainly lower-class young men who were frustrated by high unemployment and lack of economic opportunity, some of which was exacerbated by American sanctions on the country due to its nuclear program and support of terrorism. Using the 2009 playbook, in which protests were coordinated and anti-regime anger spread via the Internet, the 2019 movement proliferated rapidly across the country in just a few days. Demonstrations erupted in 29 of Iran’s 31 provinces, showing significant cracks in the Islamic regime’s traditional power base. Still, these protests were put down as harshly as were those in 2009; the government cracked down hard on demonstrators, using lethal force and detaining thousands. In just 4 days in November 2019, the regime killed 321 civilians in its forceful response to the anti-government sentiment.
Now, just a few years later, massive anti-regime protests have once again arisen in Iran. As in 2009 and 2019, they have spread like wildfire, with sizeable demonstrations cropping up across the country. But will they end in the same way, with the regime still empowered after crushing a nascent democratic movement? Or will this time be different? Much of the answer relies on the specific nature of these protests, as well as the Western (read: American) response.
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.