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.
President Biden has a bad habit of deflecting blame and shifting responsibility, something which may come back to haunt his party in November.
“The buck stops here.” This adage, meant to claim ultimate responsibility and declaim ‘passing the buck’, was a fixture of the Harry Truman White House. The President had it emblazoned on a desk sign, putting himself squarely on the top of the decision-making hierarchy and thus taking credit – and blame – for the state of nation at home and abroad. This attitude has been a model for the office ever since, for good and ill. It has (less often than I would like) led to Presidents taking responsibility for the bad choices of their administrations, but it has also helped along a massive expansion of the power of the President to make decrees from the Oval Office. When the two sides of the coin – making executive decisions and claiming responsibility for them – are both present, things can be balanced. When that coin is weighted heavily in the direction of making choices but denying responsibility for them, political disaster tends to ensue. In bad times for the country, that faulty balance becomes even more noticeable, as rhetoric and reality clash. In the current administration, this issue is not just noticeable, but is a siren blaring at full volume.
Fossil Future is a thought-provoking, full-throated defense of fossil fuels, bringing convincing evidence & a moral philosophy of human flourishing to bear on the contentious topic of climate change.
Human-impacted climate change has been labeled as an “existential threat,” a “catastrophe,” and an “apocalypse.” Depending on the ‘expert’ testimony you choose to believe, we either have ten years, seven years, five years, or a mere three years (back in 2017) to save the planet from total devastation. This intense doomsaying is widely promulgated in our media, our government institutions, and our corporate world. It is leading to serious mental health issues in younger Americans, who take this rhetoric from teachers, parents, and social media influencers seriously and have developed what has been labeled “climate anxiety.” We are told that we need to totally reorient the global economy, completely end all use of fossil fuels, and stop having children if we are to end this horrible crisis and preserve the earth in a pristine natural state.
But is any of this fear and apocalyptic rhetoric justified? A provocative new book from the philosopher and energy researcher Alex Epstein argues that it isn’t. And not only that, Fossil Future argues that to expand human flourishing we need to expand fossil fuel use, not curtail or end it entirely.
Reports of the death of American Democracy have been greatly exaggerated.
A constant refrain for the past few years has been the so-called decline of American democracy. It is most prevalent on the political left, but it has been embraced by sections of the Trumpian right as well. In this telling, America either is no longer a legitimately democratic state due to non-existent election shenanigans, or it has lost that status due to political and legal decisions which run counter to the prevailing progressive narrative. None of that is true. American democracy has been alive and kicking, in one form or another, for nearly 250 years now. Our history is the story of an evolving republic gradually and incrementally progressing to a further embrace of our founding values. But those values – freedom of speech and of belief, participatory politics, and the innate and God-given equality of man – have remained unchanged and unchangeable since they were put down in ink 246 years ago. Don’t take my word for it, look at what one of our greatest foreign allies has to say:
Beware those who would manipulate the past to satisfy the narratives of the present.
The English writer George Orwell, born 119 years ago last week, was a trenchant and far-sighted critic of all forms of totalitarianism. Those critiques and warnings for the future are most famously depicted in his novels Animal Farm and 1984 – books which, thankfully, haven’t yet caught the attention of the censors on either side of the political aisle. One of the main ideas explored in 1984 is the manipulation of history by the Party, the totalitarian government which rules the state of Oceania and lords over the novel’s protagonist Winston Smith. The Party, commanded by the ubiquitous and all-seeing Big Brother, frequently alters history to conform with its present goals, forcing the populace to wholly buy in to the new narrative or be sent for reprogramming. This passage, from Chapter 2 of 1984, explains this process and how and why the Party seeks such minute control over the events of the past:
And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth. “Who controls the past,” ran the Party slogan, “controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory.
In the same chapter is the quintessential version of this manipulation of history for totalitarian political ends, one which has become a part of the cultural lexicon of the West:
At this moment, for example, in 1984 (if it was 1984), Oceania was at war with Eurasia and in alliance with Eastasia. In no public or private utterance was it ever admitted that the three powers had at any time been grouped along different lines. Actually, as Winston well knew, it was only four years since Oceania had been at war with Eastasia and in alliance with Eurasia. But that was merely a piece of furtive knowledge which he happened to possess because his memory was not satisfactorily under control. Officially the change of partners had never happened. Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia. The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil, and it followed that any past or future agreement with him was impossible.
This approach to our past – a presentist mindset that places history at the service of current narratives and future politics – is not only visible in works of dystopian fiction. Examples abound in modern life, both at home and abroad.