The Perils of International Idealism

American foreign policy could use a does of hard-nosed realism.

by Bruce S. Thornton // Defining Ideas 

United States foreign policy has been defined lately by serial failures. Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea and appears to be preparing a reprise in eastern Ukraine, and possibly in the Baltic states. Syrian strongman Bashar al Assad is poised to win the civil war in Syria at the cost so far of over 200,000 dead. Negotiations with Iran over its uranium enrichment program have merely emboldened the regime and brought it closer to its goal of a nuclear weapon. And yet another attempt to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs has failed. In all these crises the U.S. has appeared weak and feckless, unable to direct events or achieve its aims, even as its displeasure and threats are scorned.

The responsibility for these setbacks is often laid at the feet of President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. The political calculations, ideology, and character flaws of both do indeed deserve much of the blame for America’s weakness and ineffectiveness abroad. Yet another factor is larger than any one individual, administration, or party––the flawed and often incoherent ideals shaping our understanding of interstate relations and our expectations of state behavior. Those ideals comprise a set of global norms that assume a universal morality shared by all countries despite the variety of cultures, religions, and governments in the world’s 196 nations. And those norms in turn are embodied in the international order that encompasses the various multinational institutions, tribunals, organizations, conventions, declarations on human rights, and treaties, the purposes of which is to regulate state behavior, deter or stop oppression and violence, promote peace and prosperity, and adjudicate conflict.

Official remarks and commentary on the current crises have been informed by this notion of a global consensus about which state behaviors are legitimate and which are not. John Kerry’s comments on Russia’s conflict with Ukraine, for example, scolded Putin, “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped up pretext.” Similarly, President Obama protested, “Russia’s leadership is challenging truths that only a few weeks ago seemed self-evident––that in the 21st century, the borders of Europe cannot be redrawn with force, that international law matters, that people and nations can make their own decisions about their future,” for such aggression “is not how international law and international norms are observed in the 21st century.”

Critics of the president’s handling of the crisis have endorsed this same international order they feel has been weakened by the U.S.’s timid or inept response. Fareed Zakaria of The Washington Post referred to “broader global norms––for example, against annexations by force. These have not always been honored, but, compared with the past, they have helped shape a more peaceful and prosperous world.” So too David Rivkin and Lee Casey in The Wall Street Journal evoked “the three basic principles of international law, reflected in the United Nations Charter and long-standing custom,” which “are the equality of all states, the sanctity of their territorial integrity, and noninterference of outsiders in their international affairs.”

Rivkin and Casey allude to the two main sources of international law: treaties of the sort that created the United Nations, and “long-standing custom.” Both have their weaknesses and questionable assumptions. As Robert Bork writes in Coercing Virtue, “There is nothing that can be called law in any meaningful sense established by custom. If there were, it would not restrain international aggression; it is more likely to unleash it . . . if custom is what counts, it favors aggression.” This judgment is empirically validated by the incessant warfare, ethnic cleansing, civil wars, invasions of neighbors, and genocide that have attended the modern international order since its birth in the 19th century.

As for treaties, a sovereign nation can refuse to sign a treaty. The United States, for example, has not signed the Ottawa Treaty banning anti-personnel mines. Nations can ignore or undermine treaties too, just as Russia violated the 1994 Budapest Memorandum giving “security assurances” to Ukraine in exchange for the surrender of its nuclear arsenal. Or a nation can withdraw from a treaty if it no longer serves its interests. North Korea did this in 1994 when it withdrew from the International Atomic Energy Agency on its way to acquiring nuclear weapons. This behavior surprises no one who recognizes the wisdom expressed by George Washington, who said of the new nation’s alliance with France, “It is a maxim founded on the universal experience of mankind, that no nation can be trusted farther than it is bounded by its interests.”

Internationalism, in contrast, assumes that “customary norms,” and the terms of a treaty like those creating international institutions, encode the universal morals and values that over time have emerged as the human race has progressed and become more civilized. Yet there is little evidence supporting this optimism, and much that shows Washington was right: national or regime interests determine whether these norms and terms, either customary or codified in treaties, are ignored, endorsed, or violated. We should not be surprised at this lack of consensus, given the variety of cultures, religions, and interests that shape both the means and the ends a state will pursue.

For example, violence as an instrument for pursing national aims, including intentional violence against non-combatants, is proscribed by international law and agreements like the Geneva and Hague conventions. Yet different peoples can have different conceptions of when such violence is legitimate. In many Middle Eastern countries, for example, guerilla attacks against non-combatants far from any battlefield are called terrorism by Westerners, yet dubbed legitimate “resistance” by those like the Palestinian Arabs, who name parks and streets after notorious terrorists, celebrate their deeds in school curricula, and subsidize them and their families with stipends. This disagreement about the legitimacy of violence and its acceptable victims reflects radically different beliefs that cannot be harmonized in some larger set of global “norms.”

The primacy of national interest likewise explains the failure of states to consistently intervene in order to punish those violators of international “norms” such as “noninterference of outsiders” in another nation’s affairs, or respect for “territorial integrity.” China’s absorption of Tibet, or Turkey’s annexation of northern Cyprus, was met with diplomatic censure but left unpunished. Today these ongoing occupations––like Putin’s earlier violation of Georgia’s territorial integrity–– are faits accomplis, rarely mentioned even as Russia’s similar annexation of Crimea is condemned. So too with violations of the universal prohibition against genocide, perhaps the most grievous crime in international law.  Over 400,000 people in Darfur have been killed by Arab militias at the instigation of the Sudanese government, and 800,000 were slaughtered in Rwanda.

These horrific crimes and violations of international law were not stopped or punished because it was not in the national interests of any major power to expend the necessary money and lives of its citizens, or to risk the unforeseen geopolitical consequences and blowback of such an intervention, to do so. These political calculations of national interests, which more often than not conflict with those of other nations, when camouflaged by public protestations of fealty to international norms and law, has opened up Western nations to the charge of hypocrisy and cynicism, and consequently eroded their moral authority. Given that “international law is not law but politics,” Bork writes, “it is dangerous to give the name ‘law,’ which summons up respect, to political struggles that are essentially lawless.”

A further incoherence bedevils the idea of international norms binding on all peoples. The cultural relativism dominant in the West proscribes making negative judgments about the cultures and practices of other nations. Such criticisms are thought to bespeak a lingering imperialist and colonialist, if not racist, arrogance—an attempt to impose Western morality and values on peoples with their own distinct and cherished cultures. Yet the foundational ideals of internationalism, such as human rights that exist apart from any particular regime or culture, imply not just a universalism contradicting cultural relativism, but also a moral ranking of cultures determined by their adherence to human rights, sex equality, tolerance for religious minorities, honesty in negotiation, individual freedom, and the stigmatizing of brutality and violence.

Yet how can these privileged norms be coherently integrated with the idea of national sovereignty and self-determination, and the imperative to respect and tolerate the cultural differences that define a unique national identity? If we are unwilling to say that ideals like respecting the territorial integrity of neighbors are superior to, not just different from, the cultures of other nations that violate such ideals; and if we cannot affirm that they trump the “sanctity” of the offenders’ territorial integrity and so justify our interventions to stop or punish violators––even if the aggressor’s behavior is motivated by beliefs and values integral to that nation’s culture and identity––then the foundations of the international order are built on sand, and our foreign policy will appear to be yet another hypocritical perfuming of realpolitik with idealistic rhetoric, or the empty diplomatic gestures of a weak state eager to avoid conflict.

In all the current crises, these contradictions and inconsistencies have compromised our responses and limited our actions, with the result that our interests and security have been endangered by the perception of weakness such failures invite. We need to recognize that the belief in norms established by custom or by treaty will not truly exist until nations share, as Bork writes, “a common political morality or are under a common sovereignty. A glance at the real world suggests we have a while to wait.” And as we wait for that utopian day unlikely to ever arrive, we should not be surprised that global predators continue to scorn “customary norms” and violate treaties, governed only by the timeless Thucydidean maxim–– “The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.”


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