Foreign Policy to Defend Democracy

Democratic societies whose public servants conduct a foreign policy based on “good guys” vs. “bad guys” undermine their own long-term security. The attitude of a state toward another state should rest on an assessment of the counterpart’s behavior, not its race, religion, or ideology. Perhaps needless to say, such an approach to foreign policy formulation hardly exists in the modern world.

States may rationally select partners for many reasons, and having a foreign policy based on case-by-case judgment, i.e., with no permanent partners at all, is by no means the least rational basis for foreign policy, though it takes a very clear-thinking statesperson to guide such a policy. Possibly the most incompetent and self-defeating (taking “self” to refer not to the leader but the society) foreign policy of all is the typical one, based on old prejudices and habits from an era long gone. To discern the difference, a logical method of distinguishing classes of foreign policy behavior would be a nice tool, if we could but design it. Hard as it may be to identify any real-world regimes with such a tool for identifying other regimes worth supporting, a simple continuum from selfish behavior to behavior for the common good would make a solid, if not revolutionary, foundation.

In the complex arena of foreign policy, doing harm is almost as common (and vastly more costly than) doing good, implying that there is sufficient room for improvement to anticipate real value even from a simple tool. If we can accept foreign policy based on the assumption that a general minimization of harm done would, over time, benefit us all, then we are set to move forward to a definition of broad categories of behavior that should be viewed as harmful or beneficial to the common good regardless of the identity of the actor.

Debates over exceptions will of course explode the instant one attempts to categorize specific behaviors as harmful to the common good and thus warranting opposition, but at least a default attitude (e.g., “war is bad”) would serve to make one hesitate and demand justification. In the case of good behavior by an adversary, the burden of proof would be put on one’s own leaders to justify any inclination they might have to oppose good behavior simply because done by the wrong regime. In addition, having the scale at hand would make it easier to notice and harder to “ignore” a shift in behavior. The continuum also offers an easy way to promote the common good: attacking the bad behavior of adversaries need not be the focus of foreign policy; a great step forward could be made simply by applying the continuum to one’s own behavior, to see if “we” are truly setting an example for the world.

Several common behaviors suggest themselves immediately as harmful to the common good:

  • colonization;

  • aggression surpassing the scope of a threat;

  • collective punishment;

  • preventive war;

  • denying autonomy to a disliked and marginalized minority;

  • putting reporters on trial in secret;

  • arresting anyone for “insulting” a leader.

Several other common behaviors seem to deserve immediate support:

  • nuclear transparency;

  • obeying international law.

This short set of criteria already suffices to generate a good deal of thought…and no little embarrassment. Consider the example of how the West might tackle the problem of finding partners in the Mideast. Israel is guilty of colonization of the West Bank, multiple cases of aggression beyond the scope of any threat, nuclear ambiguity, and collective punishment of the residents of Gaza. Saudi Arabia is guilty of multiple cases of aggression beyond the scope of the threat (or perhaps “preventive war). Turkey is guilty of denying autonomy to a disliked minority, putting reporters on trial in secret, and arguably for arresting people for insulting the leader. Iran was guilty of nuclear ambiguity.

Are the charges accurate? Are there justifications? To what extent are the categories of equivalent seriousness? Given the ease with which one could find similar guilt among leading Western democracies, is the test so tough that no powerful state can pass? What constitutes passing?

That last question leads to two particular cases that stand out not for the nature of the states’ behavior so much as the change. Iran has, or at least one may so hope, abandoned nuclear ambiguity (in stark contrast to Israel). Turkey has, over the last year, shifted from a policy of democratization and inclusion of Turkish Kurds in its political system (note that the former has little meaning without the latter) to a policy of repressing the Kurds by not just fighting their extremists but also by marginalizing their politicians and more broadly restricting freedom of the press and freedom of expression for the whole Turkish population.

These two dramatic cases raise the issue of whether current regime behavior or the direction of change is more important. Given the extreme differences in the development of civilized governance within a given state over time and across states at any particular time, it might well be more logical to emphasize the direction of change. Given the need for progress in governance to evolve from within a society than be imposed from without, emphasizing the direction of change is also more likely to have practical value, particularly if the international community both practices what it preaches and reacts quickly to changes.

Obama’s decision to avoid receiving Erdogan at the end of March 2016, months after Erdogan’s shift toward repression and centralization became clear to the world, might thus be judged a good move but too little, too late. It may well be imagined that Erdogan has by now become so committed to his new policy of repression that a factional realignment of forces within his political party can offer much hope of setting Turkey back on the path to modernization, democratization, and secular inclusivity.

The Western call for new anti-Iranian sanctions for testing missiles in the context of the nuclear agreement is even more curious, sending the nearly unmistakable signal that despite the huge concession Iran made in settling the nuclear issue in the absence of a similar requirement being levied on Israel, the West remains committed to subjecting Iran to discriminatory rules. Is there any other state in the world that has been ordered by the West to forego the testing of missiles? More pointedly, are Saudi Arabia and Israel required to sign up to the rules concerning missiles that Iran is being told to follow? Of course, one might protest that “Iran is different,” but this argument is like pouring water into a wicker basket in view of the aggressive foreign policy of both Saudi Arabia (preventing Bahraini democratization, internationalizing the Yemeni civil war, pursuing regime change in Syria) and Israel (invading Lebanon, retaining the Golan Heights, imprisoning the people of Gaza in a ghetto).

The real issue in Tel Aviv and Riyadh is that, being both essentially fundamentalist religious regimes and expansionist nationalist regimes, they do not welcome the rising competition from yet another state playing the same game. For Tel Aviv and Riyadh, the issue is clear: they desire neither the military competition for regional influence nor the direct ideological challenge to their dreams of religious empire. For Western regimes, the Mideast confusion of competing fundamentalist religious and sectarian interests complicating and aggravating aggressive nationalist claims and counterclaims is—if addressed as such—impossibly arcane. To deal with this problem, Western regimes tend to simplify it by assigning essentially meaningless labels that facilitate decision-making while ensuring that those decisions will be counterproductive. In an effort to evade the cultural complexities of the Mideast, Western regimes thus become captive to those complexities, making themselves servants of whatever cultural group they happen to label as “friend,” for “friend” as a political term among states means “looking the other way,” i.e., renouncing your right to think for yourself and criticize your counterpart when you perceive improper behavior. A Western state should never support or oppose a Mideast state because of the religion or sect of the Mideastern society; the Western state’s attitude should instead be grounded in an open-eyed assessment of the nature of the behavior in question. Making this assessment with a carefully defined set of behavioral criteria in mind could help Western leaders to distinguish more accurately between beneficial and harmful behavior.

How the West should react to violence is the obvious case-in-point. The constant need for Western states to decide whether to support or oppose the endless Mideast acts of violence in the name of Shi’i, Jewish, or Sunni Salafi interests will always provoke a pointless and useless debate as long as the underlying question is: “Which sect’s acts of violence should the West support?” From the long-term perspective of Western democratic societies, the answer in the abstract is “None.” As the events from 9/11 to the late March 2016 terrorist attack in Brussels should make evident, sectarian violence is not in the interest of Western societies. Indeed, even if we have forgotten the horrors of the 16th century religious wars in France or the Thirty Years’ War a century later, we should have learned the lesson from the KKK and Kristalnacht.

But Western politicians try endlessly to distinguish “justifiable” violence by a regime or private group by looking first and foremost at the sectarian identity of the guilty. Over time, that approach accomplishes two things: it exposes Western politicians as hypocritical (thereby weakening the West’s credibility as a moral leader) and establishes a dynamic that degrades the foundations of Western democracy by setting into motion a cycle of cynicism and violence. Bad behavior, short-sighted behavior, brutal behavior, emotion-based rather than thoughtful behavior is always more readily copied than the other kind. The world is watching the steady contagion of calls by politicians for sectarian policies (building walls, patrolling urban regions based on the sect of the inhabitants, banning political parties that support the political integration of minorities); collective punishment (by mistreating refugees, stripping minority regions of political rights, suicide bombers or wars against cities); drones to kill presumed but untried and perhaps unidentified opponents (to date, in “other” countries). In each case, society goes down a slippery slope: the principle is at first violated in some seemingly benign manner (e.g., racial targeting) or extreme manner presumably done as an exception (e.g., killing a known and identified individual combatant posing a direct and immediate danger) that then leads both to less benign or more common violations while also quickly establishing a precedent. It may take generations for a leading world power to convince the world to accept a new principle (banning slavery; allowing women to participate in politics; religious freedom; the right to criticize the leader; open trials; making such terror weapons as poison gas, white phosphorous, barrel bombs, nuclear warheads illegal; granting autonomy to repressed minorities). Popularizing barbaric forms of behavior that violate accepted moral and legal principles, in sad contrast, happens effortlessly and almost instantly, with unpredictable but reliably negative consequences for progressive democratic societies. A world of wars against cities, repression of minorities, and the freedom to use whatever weapon one can design or buy is a world in which dictators and extremists flourish: only societies aspiring to peace and civil liberties suffer.

Democratic societies need to impose upon themselves a higher standard of behavior–particularly in the implementation of foreign policy–not just in some idealistic quest to make the world a better place but as the core of self-defense.


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