The Incoherence of Western Foreign Policy

by Bruce S. Thornton // FrontPage Magazine 

The crisis in Ukraine is just the latest in a long series of foreign policy failures brought about by the incoherence in our thinking about foreign relations. On the one hand, we have championed ethnic-national self-determination as the highest international good, while on the other we have assumed that all these various nations and peoples share the same ideals, principles, and goods, and so can comprise a transnational order that will eliminate war and conflict and create peace and prosperity. Over a hundred years of history reveal these ideals not just to be incompatible, but also to foment and worsen inter-state violence.

To mean anything, ethnic-nationalist particularism must embody profound differences among nations, including languages, customs, mores, religions, ideals, and values. The identity of a people is defined by these differences, and that identity in turn creates interests and aims that necessarily clash with those of other peoples. To take one particularly important example, different countries have different attitudes about the legitimacy of using violence to achieve their goals. Russia under Vladimir Putin obviously sees no problem with using force or the threat of force to protect its interests in Moldova, Georgia, and now Crimea and Ukraine. The Muslim Middle East is rich with examples of the acceptability of violence, whether against external or internal enemies, in protecting a nation’s or a regime’s power and privilege. The brutal civil war in Syria is the obvious current example. Complaints about this brutality, moreover, on the part of victims usually are based on who is using violence, not the universal principle that violence is wrong. The same clerical revolutionaries in Iran who decried the brutality of the Shah’s secret police have had no problem using even worse brutality once they were in power, killing more Iranians in one year than the Savak did in 20. Violence, brutality, and torture are all fine depending on who the perpetrators are, and who the victims.

Idealistic internationalism, on the other hand, must pretend that these practices which conflict with Western norms are aberrations, remnants of a less enlightened mentality that has not yet changed and progressed to embracing the superior values of the West. No reasonable human, we assume, could approve of violence, revenge, religious triumphalism, or the lust for greater power and influence at the expense of other countries, when in our calculation pursuing such aims comes with great risks and costs. After all, there is a global “harmony of interests,” as they said in the 19th century, that include freedom, respect for human rights, peace, and prosperity, and these preferences have been enshrined in international law, institutions, and treaties that will achieve those boons for everybody. Many Westerners who believe in this sort of idealistic internationalism point to the participation of so many countries in organizations like the United Nations, or in treaties that proscribe land mines, forbid nuclear proliferation, or promote human rights, as proof of this “harmony of interests” and a universal human nature more important than nationalist or ethnic identity. But that participation in the main is a consequence of the West’s domination of the globe, not of adherence to universal principles. Just as most global leaders wear Western suits and ties, most countries go along with these Western ideals, even as they use such institutions and aims to promote their own national interests.

Hence the hypocrisy that lies at the heart of the international order. Sovereign nations pursue their particular interests, which necessarily conflict with those of others, using the international order when they find it useful to do so, and ignoring it when they don’t. That’s what it means to be “sovereign.” Thus Russia has responded to the U.S. and E.U.’s warnings of sanctions by threatening to suspend compliance with the international inspections called for under the START treaty with the U.S., and the Vienna Document binding on the member states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. But even before the current crisis, Russia has been serially cheating on arms-reduction treaties. North Korea, Iran, and the Palestinian Arabs have all played the same game. To paraphrase Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan’s comments about democracy, internationalism is like a train. You take it where you have to go and then you get off.

The long history of the failure of international diplomacy and institutions to prevent devastating wars and other brutal conflicts should have long discredited this faith in internationalism and its utopian ideals’ ability to trump the zero-sum interests and conflicting identities of nations. If sovereign nations have the right to determine their own destinies because they are essentially different from other nations, then we must accept that they will have their own interests, no matter how irrational we may think them, that conflict with those other countries. An international order that takes one civilization’s ideals and principles as the standard for the whole world will clash with those different ideals and principles, and in the end will have to use force to impose that standard that they believe to be superior. And if they do not have the will or morale to back their idealistic words with mind-concentrating deeds, then they will be viewed with contempt by those other nations, who will see in weakness an opportunity.

Just peruse the comments coming from President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry about the Ukraine crisis, and you can hear all the unexamined assumptions and received opinions that result from the incoherent combination of idealistic internationalism and national self-determination. Kerry scolded Putin by evoking the dubious idea that the world has progressed beyond violence and has endorsed diplomacy as the globally preferred method of adjudicating disputes, even as he sounded the ideal of national self-determination. Putin’s actions, Kerry said, are “really 19th-century behavior in the 21st century,” not “G-8, major-nation behavior.” A sovereign nation using power to pursue its interests as determined by that nation is somehow uncivilized, according of course to Western ideals. No, Kerry instructs the wily Putin, “It is diplomacy and respect for sovereignty, not unilateral force, that can best solve disputes like this in the 21st century.” But what if a sovereign nation determines that another nation’s interests endanger its own, using force is in its interests, and diplomacy is merely a tactic in successfully doing so? Do we still “respect” that nation’s sovereignty?

So too the President, who said, “Our goal is to make sure that the people of Ukraine are able to make decisions for themselves about their future, that the people of Syria are able to make the decisions without having bombs going off.” But what if it takes “bombs going off,” because of the aggressors who use violence to protect and advance their interests, to make sure Ukrainians and Syrians will in fact be able to “make decisions for themselves”? Next Obama smugly asserts that Putin seemingly doesn’t understand his own peoples’ interests, which lie in embracing the international order. “There are times, I hope, where Russia will recognize that over the long term they should be on board with those values and interests as well,” for “In 2014, we are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders.” What possible empirical evidence can Obama produce that suggests this assertion is remotely true?

Then he assures the Russians “that they can be part of an international community’s effort to support the stability and success of a united Ukraine going forward, which is not only in the interest of the people of Ukraine and the international community, but also in Russia’s interest.” The assumption that the world has progressed beyond violence, and that a nation’s interests can be advanced only by harmonizing with the interests of a fanciful “international community,” bespeaks a delusional arrogance dangerous in a world of nations that still see their particular interests, not those of a mythical “international community,” as paramount, and achieving them by any means they can get away with perfectly justified.

The conflict of national sovereignty and international idealism cannot be resolved without sacrificing the former to the latter. If nations have a right to rule themselves and determine their interests, on what basis do we judge those interests unacceptable? And if there is a set of ideals and principles that transcend national sovereignty, where do they come from, who has decided that they are universal and superior, and who is going to enforce them? Certainly not today’s West, whose intellectuals and elites, like Barack Obama, have embraced cultural relativism and self-loathing national guilt, even as they preach the gospel of human rights and idealistic internationalism that originated in the West and spread on the heels of Western power and economic success. Our hectoring sermons merely tell the world that we are weak, we don’t believe even in the ideals we loudly profess, and aggressors are not going to be punished for their depredations.

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