US Foreign Policy: Based on Interests or Values?

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shook the hornet’s nest during a speech in Foggy Bottom at State Department headquarters, when he stated that promoting the values of the United States can “[create] obstacles” when it comes to advancing economic interests and those related to national security. He made it clear in his speech that these interests would prevail, in all cases, over defending the values of democracy and human rights, which would be promoted only as long as they are not detrimental to other interests.

Naturally, this declaration sparked quite the controversy.

I believe that the secretary of state is committing an error that his country, the most powerful and influential country in the world, neither can, nor should, commit, but for different reasons than those presented by his critics. My argument is twofold.

First: Although what Tillerson says is, broadly speaking, true, the U.S. should never officially admit it in public and should always find a way, however limited, to project an image of a country that, in its dealings with others, never loses sight of the values that inform its democracy.

If a country gives credence to the idea that interests are always more important than values in foreign policy, sooner or later this touchstone could become justification for mistakenly interpreting economic or national security interests in a way that ends up damaging its values. Because, after all, both interests and values should never stray too far apart as long as the country’s interests are interpreted in a way that is reasonable.

My second argument is this: As has been seen in American history, the preservation of certain values over time has managed to remove some obstacles to the practice of those values.

This was the case, for example, of the Constitution written by the founders of the United States, in which they gave their legal blessing to slavery, that most repugnant of institutions. Many of the founders opposed slavery. However, for fear that they would not be able to achieve national unity and fear that the delegates of states which favored slavery would withdraw from the union, leaving the country split into vaguely linked factions, they agreed not to abolish it. Nevertheless, although they committed the moral crime of preserving slavery, they created a Constitution so full of liberal values that they equipped future generations with the means to end the institution. This has been argued by those as unlikely to be suspected of weakness in the face of slavery as Abraham Lincoln, the man who declared civil war to end it.

The debate that Tillerson has begun – probably without intending to – is a good opportunity to demonstrate how difficult it has always been, in practice, to put a country’s values first, before that which the political players of the moment believed were national interests.

A handful of idealists have tried to convert foreign policy into a force with which to defend human rights. Eleanor Roosevelt, the former first lady who was named the U.S. delegate to the United Nations by President Harry Truman, was a key player in signing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. In the 70s, Jimmy Carter announced that Washington would cease to support right-wing dictatorships in the name of anti-communism and, for example, prohibited the sale of weapons to South Africa, which was then under the system of apartheid. He also opened an office dedicated to human rights in the State Department.

But with a little digging, you can find, beneath the idealism of values, the crude reality of interests. Woodrow Wilson, who gifted the world with his angelic “14 Points” to negotiate the end of World War I and who was the champion of “self determination,” intervened militarily in Mexico, Nicaragua, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Panama for political or economic reasons. George H.W. Bush, despite his anti-communist sentiment, didn’t put an end to diplomatic relations or apply sanctions to China after the massacre of democratic demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. Bill Clinton intervened in Bosnia in 1995 after Bosnian Serbs invaded certain international sanctuaries in the former Yugoslavian republic, but he didn’t do it in Rwanda, where the Hutu were committing genocide against the Tutsi at the same time. Western interests were clearly more powerful in Europe than in Africa.

Sometimes, idealistic policies end up having unforeseen negative consequences. Carter (to a lesser degree) and Ronald Reagan’s support of Iraq against Iran in the long war between the two countries strengthened none other than Saddam Hussein. Both presidents’ support of the anti-communist mujahedeen in Afghanistan helped arm groups who would later commit acts of terrorism against the West, not to mention Manuel Antonio Noriega, who was a CIA agent dedicated to helping the United States fight terrorism and who later had to be captured in Panama by George H. W. Bush when Noriega became an enemy of Washington. Or the fact that, naively believing the Sandinistas represented democracy, Carter withdrew aid from the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua in the 70s and enabled the rise to power of Daniel Ortega, the dictator of the 80s who, after a hiatus of a few years, would return to power in the 21st century (seemingly forever).

It is difficult to pin down precisely the origin of morality in American foreign policy. There are those, for example, who locate it at the beginning of the 19th century in the Monroe Doctrine, when the United States told Europe that, from that moment on, they wouldn’t allow anyone to interfere in this hemisphere (and in exchange, the United States wouldn’t interfere in the other). The idea here is that Monroe was trying to protect the growing independent Latin American republics, which he then believed would follow a liberal path similar to the one followed by the United States. But greater rigor compels one to look years ahead and establish the beginning of morality in foreign policy closer to the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.

For example, there is some of this morality in William McKinley, who partly justified the war of 1898 (which stripped Spain of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines) with the argument that Spain had concentration camps and political prisoners. Later, Teddy Roosevelt practiced a “moral” imperialism, arguing that every intervention supported the diffusion of American values and civilization.

What is today known as the American “empire” was born (in a certain sense) in the war, which lent the United States a powerful presence in the Pacific and in Latin America. This presence would grow over time and eventually convert itself into a global force. Two seemingly incompatible concepts, imperialism and values, were born at the same time as driving forces in foreign policy. This contradictory duality would go on to mark all of the 20th century (and so far, the 21st) in Foggy Bottom.

Both concepts evolved with time, of course. American imperialism ceased to be what it had been and the defense of values changed as well: At first, it involved values related to Christianity and later, perhaps after Wilson, it dealt more specifically with democracy and the rights of small countries until, during World War II, it became the defense of human rights as we know them today. But the combination, in American foreign policy, of the international defense of interests (imperialism) and the international defense of values has continued until today.

That is the first inexplicit and unspoken dilemma of the country’s foreign policy. The second is this: If one decides to defend one’s values, it is not possible to apply them all the time and in all circumstances. So, where, when, and at what price should we apply them?

Clinton intervened militarily on many occasions – Somalia (1993), Haiti (1994), Bosnia (1995), Iraq (1998), Afghanistan and Sudan (1998) and Serbia (1999) – but apparently not enough to free the world from the Islamic terrorists who would threaten his liberal values a few years later (and against whom many of these interventions were directed). Would Clinton have been able to convert these interventions into powerful wars without knowing everything that al-Qaida and his allies would be capable of doing years later?

Another case is that of the intervention of George H. W. Bush in Kuwait in 1991, after the invasion of this country by Saddam a few months earlier. Many war hawks asked Bush to move on to Baghdad and in that way convert the liberation of Kuwait into an occupation of Iraq to free the country from the tyrant Saddam. But Bush wanted to avoid an unjustified war. Liberating Kuwait meant defending an invaded country – and therefore the value of self-determination – but invading Iraq meant involving the country in a costly battle of undetermined length, for which he didn’t believe he had a mandate. In this case, then, the value of “democracy,” or expressing it in negative terms, “liberation of the victims of tyranny,” wasn’t, in the eyes of former President George H.W. Bush, sufficient justification for an invasion.

Barack Obama, in his speeches, was an idealist. But the idealism of the values he expressed in his speeches was in constant tension with the interests of the United States. His actions frequently brought up the question of how far the country could go to defend its values without compromising its interests. His use of drones, for example, demonstrates this point. In theory, drones are very precise, and when used to fight terrorism, are a way to avoid wider, more indiscriminate bombings. In practice, drones attack precisely … but sometimes attack the wrong target. For that reason, there have been many casualties of innocent civilians at the hands of these technologically sophisticated instruments.

Someone who, in the name of his values, wanted to avoid giving the impression of the United States as a country that desired to impose its will on the world, sacrificed his values in the name of the fight against terror, a fight that, even if it does represent certain values, has to do with the national security interests of the United States. Innocent lives are a cost that, in Obama’s eyes, were an inevitable price to pay to defend his country.

Tillerson, therefore, hasn’t said anything new. The novelty is in the fact that the United States has publicly said something that, as long as it is the leader of the free world, should never become its official policy. It is preferable for United States to be occasionally accused of not having practiced its values, rather than be accused of having abandoned them entirely. The first option leaves us with hope and gives us a powerful measuring stick.

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