This past weekend, Italy held snap parliamentary elections to replace its unpopular government. Although results are still being finalized, it looks as though the big winner of the day was the right-wing coalition led by Giorgia Meloni and her Brothers of Italy party. Brothers of Italy received the greatest share of the vote, twenty-six percent, and together with Matteo Salvini’s League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, they seem poised to build a government with popular backing.
If you’ve heard anything about the results of this democratic process from the mainstream media, however, it has likely been descriptions of Brothers of Italy and particularly Meloni herself as “hard right,” “far-right,” or even “fascist.” She has been labeled “a danger to Italy and the rest of Europe” by The Guardian, and the New York Times called her “the first far-right nationalist to govern Italy since Mussolini.” Reading those pieces, you might expect Meloni’s views to echo Il Duce’s famous fascist dictum: “Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State.” In reality, this media framing relies purely on conjecture, guilt by association, bad history, and bias.
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.
The South Pacific has once again become a strategic theater for Great Power competition, and the US is falling behind. Still, it is not too late to win the day and cement American primacy in a critical region.
What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “South Pacific”? For most, it likely conjures up images of white sandy beaches, lush tropical forests, and incredibly expensive vacations. Others may think of the musical of the same name, or the hard-fought WWII campaign pitting the Americans against the Japanese. For a small number of us, it brings to mind one thing above all else: strategic competition. The region has been a hotbed of imperial rivalry for at least the past 150 years, ebbing and flowing in its importance as various world powers have risen and fallen. Now, its strategic role has returned with a vengeance, as China vies with the United States and its regional allies for local primacy. New developments in the China-US competition over these myriad islands have brought the issue into sharper focus, called to mind important historical parallels, and led to a key question: what should the US do to claim the upper hand in this struggle for power and influence?
The passage of a new military aid package for Ukraine shows that American hegemony can be protected & defended on the cheap.
American hegemony is under its greatest threat since the fall of the Soviet Union over 30 years ago. We are faced with an enormous civilizational challenge from China, led by the genocidal, totalitarian Chinese Communist Party. We are dealing with belligerent states like Iran & North Korea which have clear designs on wiping out their neighbors with nuclear weapons. And we are trying to contain the largest invasion of European territory since 1945, where Russia is attempting to reconstitute a Tsarist imperium on the bones of Ukrainian civilians. All of these threats, although facially oriented against other nations, are in reality aimed squarely at the heart of American power: the global system which promotes our prosperity and seeks the freedom of nations & peoples everywhere. The US, along with our allies across the globe, can handle these challenges and win the fight for the 21st century. But we have to get serious about the danger we face and how we choose to handle it. Fortunately, there are some signs that we might be on the right track, at least when it comes to responding to the most pressing current crisis: the war in Ukraine.