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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Legislating Morality

Who says you can’t legislate morality? We not only do it but cannot, in our complex system, do anything else. The question is: what kind of morality do we legislate?

Government colors every facet of economic life. The frontiersman in us may scream, “Leave me alone,” but government cannot avoid picking winners and losers. Society speaks through government. The alternative is rule of the jungle – individuals alone. When individuals try to work collectively, maybe they can occasionally rally for a boycott or riot, but mostly they speak through that collective organization we call “government.” Government does something or not and either way sends a clear signal. Individuals then make choices in response. Every day we legislate to set options, which impact behavior, and which eventually tends to alter attitudes: utterly arbitrary and perhaps completely irrational, unjust, unfair, biased norms are created and eventually taken for granted as we forget their arbitrary beginnings.

Consider one of the most basic economic decisions that the U.S. government has made: a special very low capital gains tax. If you bake bread or catch criminals or teach our kids or smelt steel or manage a hospital, you pay a tax rate that is some rather substantial percent of your earned income. But if you get your money without earning it, i.e., just by sitting around and watching the value of your property or stocks or the value of your bets derived from whatever other thing you are betting on rise, then you are awarded a privileged and very low tax rate (made even lower by anti-worker Bush), which of course is called the capital gains rate on unearned income. It is called unearned because it is: you don’t do anything but watch your investment’s value change as the result of some independent process that luckily for you happens to be occurring. It is called “capital” gains because your gains are a function of capital–i.e., money–movements rather than physical or mental movements, which would be called “work.”

Graph from Wikipedia.

One could call the government attitude back in the 1970s, when the capital gains tax rate was at 35%, “neutral”–the government more or less avoided punishing or rewarding either of the two alternative means of gaining income (working for it or gambling for it). By (infamously) the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the elitist, anti-worker regime of Bush and Cheney had warped the government’s attitude into a clear pro-gambling stance, heavily penalizing those still clueless enough (including this author) to be working for a living. Although the moral superiority of labor over capital had been recognized in U.S. politics at least as far back as Abraham Lincoln, who–though no economist–had a very clear sense of justice and pointed out that labor should be held in higher regard than capital since labor had to come first (with capital as the result of someone’s hard work), in Washington, a pro-capital, anti-labor bias has long plagued U.S. society.

Thus, the government has made a fundamental value judgement: working to build up the nation (whatever physical or mental, blue-collar or white-collar work you care to do) is punished; gambling with money (most often not even your own money!) is rewarded. Any normally rational person (i.e., a person who chooses to maximize his own personal profit rather than sacrifice personally for the greater good of society) will thus conclude that he should become a financial manipulator. Worse, since the government rewards gambling with other people’s money just as much as gambling with one’s own, why would any rational person choose to risk his own money, when he can get the same reward for putting his neighbor at risk instead. So naturally, people flock to large-scale gambling with other people’s money. And amazingly, even after the 2008 Recession clarified the idiocy of designing a society for the purpose of maximizing financial manipulations rather than investment in real work or actually doing real work, nothing has changed. Citizens who choose to work for a living are still punished and those who gamble with other people’s money are still rewarded.

CBO via Mother Jones

All this has absolutely nothing to do with the size of government. It has to do with the choices that government makes. Financially, the U.S. today probably has the most extreme government of any major country on earth: i.e., the government that legally enforces the most pro-gambling, anti-work rules of any major government. Note that I did not say “the most pro-business.” This bias in favor of financial manipulations has nothing to do with being pro-business. The business of making steal is punished just as much as the work of being a steelmaker is punished. The business of building hospitals is punished just as much as the work of being a surgeon is punished. Only businesses such as  J.P.Morgan and Bank of America and Goldman Sachs, i.e., businesses that make their money primarily from gambling with other people’s money by making idiotic bets that X will change in value (the direction matters not a whit as long as you guess correctly), are rewarded. All businesses and individuals who actually do something, create something, build something are punished.

So there is no surprise that manufacturing is declining and infrastructure is decaying and schools don’t teach as much as they used to. Who wants to repair bridges when the government penalizes you by confiscating an extra 15 – 25 cents out of every dollar you earn, in comparison with its treatment of financial manipulators?

There is no surprise that the JP Morgans are the richest and just about the largest companies in the land, that they are gaining the power to rule, and that politicians will take your tax dollars to provide them as much welfare as they may need. It is no surprise that their employees’ salaries are the highest or that their CEO’s are the richest. Well, to be correct, there is a class of business that is even richer – pure, 100% hedge funds, and that too is only logical, for they do nothing but gamble. After all, JP Morgan and Bank of America still do offer bank accounts to individuals, a distraction that may gain them further government benefits but still amounts to a distraction from their real line of business, so the real rich are not the Jamie Dimons at $25M or so per year but the several hedge fund managers at the top who each pocket a cool billion or so per year. When your annual income is $1B, that 15% tax rate makes a difference!

The decline of everything except finance is neither illogical nor “chance” nor surprising. Our system works as designed–for the benefit of financial manipulators.