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.

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“An Ideal and Patriotic Interest”: Strategy in the South Pacific

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?

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With Friends Like These…

Russia is poised to renew its offensive in Ukraine; what is NATO going to do about it? Unfortunately, if recent indications hold true, very little.


History has returned with a vengeance. Europe is once again on the precipice of a large-scale land war instigated by an expansionist Russia looking to exert suzerainty over its independent neighbors. The last major Russian offensive in Ukraine back in 2014 led to the illegal annexation of Crimea, as well as a burgeoning separatist insurgency in the eastern part of the country, backed militarily and financially by Moscow. Russia did not fight this conflict in the open, instead using proxies, special forces, mercenaries, and non-uniformed soldiers colloquially known as Little Green Men. The NATO response was relatively minor, consisting of some economic sanctions and tough talk on the part of the Obama administration; ironically enough, the lead diplomatic envoy dealing with the crisis on behalf of the United States was one Joe Biden. Since then, the war in Ukraine has continued, causing tens of thousands of casualties, while Russian control over Crimea has been cemented. Malign Russian influence in Europe and its confidence and aggression abroad have also increased over the past 8 years, assisted by weak and inconsistent Western policy. The constant state of intermittent conflict in the Donbas region of Ukraine has brought the region back to a state of trench warfare reminiscent of the First World War. In recent months, however, Russia has begun a conventional military buildup on Ukraine’s borders and looks ready to launch a full-scale assault using tanks, artillery, and air power. This is an even bigger threat to European peace and American global hegemony than Russia’s initial assault on Ukraine was nearly a decade ago, yet it seems like our response will be even more lackluster than last time – if not downright conciliatory. This is a recipe for disaster.

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Saigon 2.0: The Fall of Kabul

The humiliation of the United States and the total collapse of Afghanistan will be a disaster for American power for years to come.

Many pundits have compared the current catastrophe in Afghanistan to the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese in 1975. In quite a few respects, those commenters are not wrong, and the similarities are echoed by the images coming out of Kabul today. The photo above is eerily reminiscent of the famed images of a helicopter airlift from the US Embassy in Saigon and videos coming out of the Kabul airport are just as heartbreaking and terrifying as those from South Vietnam almost 50 years ago. Our precipitous withdrawal will lead to thousands of refugees, greater civil violence, and horrible human rights abuses by a totalitarian Islamic dictatorship that sees its mission as forcibly bringing jihad to the entire world.

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Negotiation or Capitulation?

The Biden administration’s approach to the threat of Iran seems more like capitulation than it does negotiation.

Recent reports from reputable outlets like the New York Times have suggested that the Biden administration seeks to restart negotiations with the Iranian regime as to their burgeoning nuclear weapons program. This is not surprising for anyone who has been paying attention to this issue; Biden campaigned on re-entering several diplomatic agreements negotiated by the Obama administration, including the Iran Nuclear Deal known as the JCPOA. The problem with this approach arises not from the idea of diplomacy generally, but from the specifics of the current situation with Iran. Suffice it to say, a lot has changed since Biden last worked in the White House in January 2017.

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