What is the proper foreign policy for America?
There are essentially three schools of thought on the matter. One is widely known as “idealism,” because it is driven by alleged ideals;1 another as “realism,” because it is driven by an alleged focus on reality;2 and the third does not yet have a popular name but needs one. Because this third alternative is driven by the principles of egoism, it may be called “egoism.”3
Foreign policy is a complex matter involving many derivative elements, but the fundamental aspect of the concern—the standard by reference to which all other aspects are evaluated—is the purpose of such a policy: the ultimate end to which all other aspects are means. If we need a foreign policy, then grasping why we need one is essential to grasping what the policy and its various elements should be. (If we don’t need a foreign policy, then there’s no point in pondering the matter.)
The purpose of this essay is not to survey all the premises, elements, and implications of idealism, realism, and egoism; rather, the purpose is to identify, differentiate, and evaluate these schools’ positions regarding the ultimate aim of foreign policy. Such a highly delimited discussion is no substitute for a survey of the derivative issues. But, because purpose is primary, this is where any rational discussion of foreign policy must begin and remain anchored. One cannot coherently evaluate other aspects of the subject—whether alliances, armaments, budgets, diplomacy, embargoes, sanctions, treaties, containment, drone strikes, nuclear strikes, rules of engagement, or anything else—unless one knows and bears in mind the ultimate end toward which all such aspects are (possible) means.
A final preliminary note: Although this essay presents the three basic positions in pure, unmixed form, few people embrace any one of them in pure form. Most who take a position on foreign policy embrace a mixture of some sort. But this fact does not diminish the value of isolating and clarifying the pure forms of these schools; on the contrary, it highlights the value of doing so, as one can understand the mixtures only to the extent that one understands the basic elements thereof.
Idealism holds that the proper purpose of U.S. foreign policy is to uphold American “ideals”—meaning, certain moral principles—and, thereby, to spread freedom and democracy to foreigners who lack these values. According to this school, the United States should engage in humanitarian missions, military interventions, nation building, and whatever else might save foreigners from oppression, protect them from tyranny, enable them to hold elections, or otherwise serve their needs. This policy might not always serve Americans’ self-interest; indeed, it might cost Americans a great deal of blood and treasure; but, according to its advocates, it is the moral approach to foreign relations—it is the “right” thing to do.
A major proponent of idealism in recent times is George W. Bush, who expressed the idea succinctly when he said, “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”4 Although Bush at times paid lip service to the idea that “our first priority must always be the security of our nation,” he nevertheless maintained that “we have a greater objective than eliminating threats and containing resentment. We seek a just and peaceful world.”5 This goal—ending tyranny across the globe and establishing a just and peaceful world—is the ultimate aim of idealism.6
Some idealists, such as foreign-policy analyst Max Boot, speak in terms of America’s duty to police the world. Boot asks: “Why should America take on the thankless task of policing the globe?”—and answers: “As long as evil exists, someone will have to protect peaceful people from predators”; someone will have to “punish the wicked.” The only nation that can do it, says Boot, is the United States, “the country with the most vibrant economy, the most fervent devotion to liberty and the most powerful military.”7
Idealists are aware that policing the world, ending tyranny, and spreading democracy to every nation is a massive undertaking and will require much time. As Senator John McCain famously acknowledged, bringing democracy to Iraqis alone might take “one hundred years.”8 But, according to idealism, this global mission is nevertheless a moral imperative.
The fundamental idea underlying and animating idealism is the morality of altruism, the idea that being moral consists in selflessly serving others. The philosopher Auguste Comte, who coined the term, defined altruism as our “constant duty” to “live for others.”9 Versions of this principle can be found in various religions and secular philosophies, from Judaism and Christianity, which teach that we are our brother’s keeper; to Marxism, which teaches that we must take from each according to his ability and give to each according to his needs;10 to the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, which teaches that in order for our actions to be ethical they must be taken specifically for the sake of moral duty and without regard to self-interest or personal benefit.11
Kant, a philosophic founder of idealism, writes that the moral goal of international relations is “to put an end to all wars for ever.”12 Kant, and idealists in general, recognize that because this mission requires enormous sacrifice on the part of nations that set out to police the world, some people will oppose the undertaking on the grounds that, whatever its moral merit, such a mission entails too much sacrifice and not enough benefit. For instance, some will point out, America’s effort during the 1960s and 1970s to end the war between the North and South Vietnamese cost the lives of more than 58,000 Americans, wounded more than 211,000 Americans, and cost American taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars. But, according to idealism, that is no excuse for ignoring or violating the principles of morality. Regarding our own interests, writes Kant, “as soon as the imperative of [moral] duty supervenes,” we “must completely abstract from such considerations and must on no account make them a condition of . . . obeying the [moral] law.” We must not decide on our policies or actions by reference to our needs or interests; rather, we must “make every possible conscious effort to ensure that no [selfish] motive . . . imperceptibly infiltrates [our] conceptions of duty.” We must “think rather of the sacrifices which obedience to duty (i.e., virtue) entails than of the benefits [we] might reap from it.”13
Put simply, idealism holds that we must think of foreign policy not in terms of what’s in it for us, but in terms of what’s the right thing to do—not in terms of what’s politically expedient, but in terms of what’s morally correct.
As to circumstances in which there appears to be a conflict between the moral and the practical, idealism holds that such paradoxes are easily resolved by bearing in mind the proper relationship between the two. Morality “relates directly to practice,” writes Kant, “inasmuch as it is a system of unconditionally authoritative laws, in accordance with which we ought to act. It is therefore a manifest absurdity, after admitting the authority of [moral] duty, to assert, notwithstanding, that we cannot so act.”
[T]here can be no conflict between Political Philosophy as the practical science of right, and Moral Philosophy as the theoretical science of right; and consequently there can be no opposition in this relation between practice and theory. . . . [Politics] must proceed from the pure conception of the duty of Right or Justice . . . whatever may be the physical consequences which follow. . . .
A true political philosophy, therefore, cannot advance a step without first paying homage to the principles of morals; and, although politics taken by itself is a difficult art, . . . its union with morals removes it from the difficulties. . . . For this combination of them cuts in two the knots which politics alone cannot untie, whenever they come into conflict with each other.14
In other words, when there appears to be a conflict between the moral and the practical in the realm of politics, the conflict is decisively settled by recognizing that moral principles trump political concerns every time. If we are to be moral, Kant emphasizes, we must do what is morally right—“however great may be the sacrifice”—because, when it comes to moral principle, there is no middle ground: “We cannot divide right into halves, or devise a modified condition of right intermediate between justice and utility. Rather must all politics bow the knee before the principle of right.”15
Although Kant’s language may sound antiquated, his ideas on foreign policy—especially his insistence on applying the principle of “moral duty” to the field—have been enormously influential on American intellectuals and policy makers. In conjunction with the altruism demanded by Christianity, Judaism, and Marxism, Kant’s ideas have been a fundamental driving force in U.S. foreign policy for many decades, and they still are today. We can see this not only in the history of U.S. foreign policy, but also in various evaluations of that history and in various prescriptions for future U.S. policy.
For example, singing the praises of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, Mark Gerson, author of The Neoconservative Vision, writes that “Americans had nothing to gain from entering [the war]. . . . The American effort in Vietnam was a product of one of the noblest traits of the American character—altruism in service of principles.”16 Speaking of America’s altruistic duties going forward, John McCain says we must “devote ourselves to causes greater than our self-interests,” and such causes are to be found wherever people are in need: “Every place there’s a hungry child, there’s a cause. . . . Everywhere there’s a child without education, there’s a cause. Everywhere in the world where there’s ethnic, tribal or age-old hatreds, there’s a cause.”17 And, drawing a prescriptive parallel between the U.S. welfare state and idealist foreign policy, Max Boot writes that America should use “the awesome power of the U.S. government to help the downtrodden of the world, just as it is used to help the needy at home.”18
In light of Boot’s parallel, observe that just as the welfare state has not always been an aspect of U.S. domestic policy, so too idealism has not always been an aspect of our foreign policy. For example, in 1821, John Quincy Adams explained the essence of U.S. foreign policy as follows:
[America] has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when the conflict has been for principles to which she clings. . . . Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.19
This was the essence of U.S. foreign policy for many decades, beginning with the founding of America: Wish other countries well—wish them success in establishing and maintaining freedom and independence, as America had done—and, otherwise, leave them alone, unless they attack America or her citizens.
But idealists oppose such a policy—because it contradicts the morality of altruism, the idea that we have a moral duty to selflessly serve others.
A particularly clear statement of this difference is offered by William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, and Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. America, they say, has both the ability and the responsibility to save foreigners from monsters—and for America to shirk that responsibility would be reprehensible. As Kristol and Kagan put it:
John Quincy Adams [said] that America ought not go “abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” But why not? The alternative is to leave monsters on the loose, ravaging and pillaging to their hearts’ content, as Americans stand by and watch. . . . Because America has the capacity to contain or destroy many of the world’s monsters, most of which can be found without much searching, and because the responsibility for the peace and security of the international order rests so heavily on America’s shoulders, a policy of sitting atop a hill and leading by example becomes in practice a policy of cowardice and dishonor.20
In other words, according to idealism, a foreign policy dedicated to protecting Americans’ rights, setting a good example, and wishing others well is immoral. Morality requires that America police the world, dispatch its monsters, and establish peace, security, and order across the globe.
Clearly, compared to U.S. foreign policy in the early decades of America, idealism represents a sea change. When did this alleged ideal come into political play? Two watershed moments are worth noting.
The most vivid turning point was America’s entry into World War I. Upon entering the war, Woodrow Wilson announced to the world: “We did not set this Government up in order that we might have a selfish and separate liberty.” America “was born to serve mankind,” and “we are now ready to come to your assistance and fight out upon the field of the world the cause of human liberty.”21
We have no selfish ends to serve. . . . We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. . . . We shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts—for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free.22
Wilson’s justification for entering WWI captures the essence of idealism. And what ensued illustrates the consequences of such a policy: America sacrificed more than 116,500 American lives, suffered more than 204,000 Americans wounded, and spent tens of billions of dollars in an attempt to “bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free.” Needless to say, the war did not make the world free.
But WWI was not the first instance of U.S. foreign policy being directed by altruism. Although Wilson was the first U.S. president to express purely selfless justification for entering a war, he was not the first to include some selfless justification.
In 1898, when William McKinley petitioned Congress to declare war on Spain, he cited a mixture of justifications. At the time, Spain was warring against Cuba, which was struggling for independence, and McKinley argued that U.S. involvement in the war was justified not only to protect the lives and liberty of Americans who were doing business in and around Cuba, but also to uphold America’s “duty” to free Cubans from Spanish tyranny. As McKinley put it: “The forcible intervention of the United States as a neutral to stop the war . . . is justifiable” on the following grounds:
First. In the cause of humanity and to put an end to the barbarities, bloodshed, starvation, and horrible miseries now existing [in Cuba], and which the parties to the conflict are either unable or unwilling to stop or mitigate. It is no answer to say this is all in another country, belonging to another nation, and is therefore none of our business. It is specially our duty, for it is right at our door.
Second. We owe it to our citizens in Cuba to afford them that protection and indemnity for life and property which no government there can or will afford, and to that end to terminate the conditions that deprive them of legal protection.
Third. The right to intervene may be justified by the very serious injury to the commerce, trade, and business of our people and by the wanton destruction of property and devastation of the island.
Fourth, and which is of the utmost importance. The present condition of affairs in Cuba is a constant menace to our peace and entails upon this Government an enormous expense. With such a conflict waged for years in an island so near us and with which our people have such trade and business relations; when the lives and liberty of our citizens are in constant danger and their property destroyed and themselves ruined; where our trading vessels are liable to seizure and are seized at our very door by war ships of a foreign nation; the expeditions of filibustering that we are powerless to prevent altogether, and the irritating questions and entanglements thus arising—all these and others that I need not mention, with the resulting strained relations, are a constant menace to our peace and compel us to keep on a semi-war footing with a nation with which we are at peace.23
McKinley’s mixture of justifications for entering the war—part “duty” to save Cubans from tyranny and part responsibility to protect Americans from aggression—is (to my knowledge) the first instance of a U.S. statesman calling for war explicitly on altruistic grounds.
Congress soon declared war on Spain, and America effected a swift victory—at the cost of more than 2,400 Americans killed, more than 1,600 wounded, and some $250 million spent. Given the mixed justifications for the war, the extent to which these were sacrifices for the sake of foreigners is debatable. But they were, to a substantial extent, sacrifices.
The Spanish-American War marked a decisive shift in U.S. foreign policy toward idealism. And idealism has substantially dictated decision making in U.S. policy ever since.
What are the alternatives to this alleged ideal? And how do they counter its seeming moral high ground?
The basic opposing schools are realism and egoism. Both observe that idealism is driven not by the facts of reality but by the “values” of a particular morality: altruism. And both observe that such a policy is disastrous for America. But each has a different approach to solving the paradox between the moral and the practical.
Realism holds that the proper purpose of U.S. foreign policy is to secure America’s “national interest,” which requires being “realistic.” The emphasis on “reality” here is in direct response to the idealist view that U.S. foreign policy should be based on “morality.” Realists hold that moral principles—by which they, too, mean the principles of altruism—are incompatible with the goal of securing the “national interest.” Thus, they say, when it comes to U.S. foreign policy, such principles must be set aside or subordinated to make way for whatever “works.”
Former secretary of state James L. Baker explains the realist view as follows: “We cannot formulate or implement American foreign policy according to the principles of Mother Teresa, because when the body bags start coming home, you can’t get support”; you simply “can’t get support for a political policy when there is not an overriding national interest.”24 Hans Morgenthau, a founder of the realist school, likens idealism to a mind-throttling, failure-inducing drug: “The intoxication with moral abstractions, which as a mass phenomenon started with the Spanish-American War and which in our time has become the prevailing substitute for political thought, is indeed one of the great sources of weakness and failure in American foreign policy.”25 In matters of foreign policy, writes Morgenthau, “the national interest of the United States” is the “one standard of evaluation.”26
Robert D. Kaplan, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, explains the realist view of the correct relationship between moral values and national interests:
Interests come before values. A nation such as the United States has interests in secure sea lines of communication, access to energy, a soft dominance in the Western Hemisphere and a favorable balance of power in the Eastern Hemisphere. These are amoral concerns that, while not necessarily in conflict with liberal values, operate in a different category from them.27
Realists aim to do precisely what Kant and the idealists insist we must not do: segregate moral principles from foreign policy. Some realists see this approach as morally problematic, but they nevertheless insist that we must be politically realistic. “If Arab dictatorships will better secure safe sea lanes in and out of energy-producing areas than would chaotic democracies,” writes Kaplan, “realists will opt for dictatorship, knowing that it is a tragic yet necessary decision.”28
The ability to make foreign-policy decisions unconstrained by moral principles not only enables politicians and statesmen to refrain from policing the world, destroying monsters, and saving foreigners from tyranny; it also enables them to befriend monsters, to engage with them, and even to support them in the name of the “national interest.”
Consider, for example, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s position in the mid-1970s regarding the Khmer Rouge—the communist regime in Cambodia headed by Pol Pot, which was, at the time, in the process of slaughtering more than 1.4 million Cambodians for not being communists. As Alex J. Bellamy writes in Massacres and Morality:
When Kissinger met Thai foreign minister, Chatichai Choonhavan in November 1975, he indicated that the USA was prepared to adopt a friendly posture towards the Khmer Rouge, which it saw as a balance to Vietnamese hegemony, and that US interests trumped concern about communist atrocities. Kissinger informed his interlocutor that “[y]ou should also tell the Cambodians that we will be friends with them. They are murderous thugs, but we won’t let that stand in our way. We are prepared to improve relations with them. Tell them the latter part, but don’t tell them what I said before.” He advised the foreign minister that “you should tell them that we bear no hostility towards them. We would like them to be independent as a counterweight to North Vietnam.”29
Of course, much of what realist politicians and statesmen advocate and support they advocate and support behind closed doors. Kissinger’s conversation with the Thai foreign minister was not declassified until 2004. But given the realists’ general approach and the bits and pieces of their words and deeds that we can fit together, we can produce a pretty clear picture of the school in action.
A more recent example of the realist tactic of befriending and supporting dictatorships for purposes of “national interest” is the U.S. government’s ongoing friendship with and support of Saudi Arabia. This theocracy embraces the Koran as its constitution and is ruled entirely by sharia law; it beheads citizens for “crimes” such as apostasy, blasphemy, homosexuality, and “sorcery”; it permits men to “marry” and “have sex” with children; and it supports terrorism against infidels in general and Americans in particular.30 Even so, the United States provides the Saudi government with high-tech weaponry, purchases oil from its sheiks, and regularly sends U.S. representatives (such as Secretary of State John Kerry) to wine and dine with its leaders—all (presumably) toward securing America’s “national interest.”
How, one might wonder, does befriending and supporting such vile creatures serve America’s “national interest”? According to realism, it’s all very complicated. But, as Kaplan and Kissinger indicate above, a key aspect of the calculus has to do with establishing and maintaining favorable “balances of power” among various adversarial nations.
A favorable balance of power is alleged to be one that creates “stability”—a situation in which the nations in question are (or feel) sufficiently equalized such that neither will attack or harm the other—or, at least, if they do, the conflict won’t have negative impact on America’s “national interest.” Kissinger sought a stronger Khmer Rouge as a “counterweight” to North Vietnam, against whom the United States had just lost a long and costly war. Although the Khmer Rouge and the North Vietnamese had been allies against America during the Vietnam War, they now were hostile toward each other because the Khmer Rouge believed that the North Vietnamese wanted ultimately to rule Cambodia. Kissinger calculated that improving relations between the United States and the Khmer Rouge would work toward keeping North Vietnam from expanding and thus further harming America’s “national interests.”
Likewise, in regard to U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia, supporting the Saudis, the realist argument goes, “balances power” against the Iranian regime, helps to maintain “stability” between these opposing Sunni and Shia forces, keeps Iran from invading Saudi Arabia, and keeps the oil flowing from Saudi Arabia to America.
Of course, the realist aim of balancing power becomes ever more complicated as additional moving parts are factored in—especially when nuclear weapons enter the picture. This is the case today in regard to U.S. relations with Iran, Israel, and the Middle East at large.
America’s ally Israel is currently the only nation in the Middle East in possession of nuclear weapons. This imbalance, according to realists, is a problem because, so long as Israel is the only nuclear power in the region, the other nations in the area will feel threatened by the prospect of Israel attacking them with impunity.31 This imbalance and consequent fear, say realists, lead to increased tension and the possibility of war. But, if a “balance” is introduced to the mix—if, for instance, Iran acquires nuclear weapons—then tensions will subside and stability will ensue. Why? Because, as Kenneth Waltz puts it, “countries with nuclear capabilities do not fight wars against one another.”32
The existence of a single nuclear power without a balancer is a recipe for instability in the long-run. The amazing thing is that Israel managed to remain a single nuclear power for such a long time! Israel is an anomaly in this way. This anomaly will be removed if Iran becomes a nuclear power.33
The idea supporting the belief that nuclear-weapons states will refrain from attacking each other is a deeper, two-part premise of realism: the idea that all nations are inherently “self-interested” (meaning they seek to survive) and inherently “rational” (meaning they are motivated by incentives and disincentives toward that end).34 On this premise, nuclear-weapons states will not take military action against each other unless one of them believes its “survival is at stake.”35 In support of this idea, realists cite historic examples in which nations such as the Soviet Union, Red China, and Pakistan have acquired nuclear weapons but have not used them. As Waltz writes:
New nuclear states are often greeted with dire forebodings: Is the government stable? Are the rulers sensible? The answers may be disconcerting. Yet every new nuclear nation, however bad its previous reputation, has behaved exactly like all of the old ones. The effect of having nuclear weapons overwhelms the character of the states that possess them. Countries with nuclear weapons, no matter how mean and irrational their leaders may seem to be, no matter how unstable their governments appear to be, do not launch major conventional attacks on other countries, let alone nuclear ones.36
In short, on this view, no matter how deranged and dangerous a regime may appear, once it acquires nuclear weapons, its character will change; it will come to its senses; and it will refrain not only from launching a nuclear attack, but even from launching a major conventional attack.
The upshot, says Waltz, is that if the Iranian regime acquires nuclear weapons, it “will become less, and not more, violent”;37 and the United States “may well have a much calmer relationship with Iran than we do now.”38 Thus, in regard to U.S. diplomacy and negotiations, “a nuclear-armed Iran . . . would probably be the best possible result.”39
We can see the foregoing premises of the realist approach in efforts by the Obama administration concerning Iran. As I type these words, Obama and his State Department are involved in a complex series of negotiations with the Iranian theocracy to cut a deal that will enable the regime to move forward with its nuclear program—so long as it promises both to allow occasional inspections of its nuclear facilities and to refrain from actually completing a nuclear bomb for several years.40 This effort works toward balancing power between Israel and Iran (by increasing Iran’s power in the Middle East) and between the United States and Iran (by increasing Iran’s power in the international arena). It also renders Saudi Arabia in desperate need of remaining on extremely friendly terms with the United States, because, absent U.S. protection, the Saudis would be at the mercy of a nuclear-armed Iran. Accordingly, on the premises of realism, if the United States were to strike such a deal with Iran, it would be a triple bonus—unless, of course, the Saudis were to acquire their own nuclear weapons, in which case there would be more balancing to do.
The Obama administration’s efforts to befriend and negotiate with murderous thugs such as the Saudi and Iranian regimes have not gone unnoticed by advocates of realism. Although “Obama speaks in hallowed terms about America’s global mission,” writes Fred Kaplan, “[h]e suffers no ideological hang-ups about negotiating with dreadful rulers or sworn enemies, such as Iran, for the sake of national-security interests.”41 And Waltz praises a certain “level-headedness” that has been “characteristic of the Obama administration’s foreign policy in general.”42
Importantly, not all realists agree on the means of achieving the “national interest,” or on what constitutes a favorable “balance of power” in a given situation, or on which monsters to befriend or which to snub or when to change allegiance. What realists agree on is that the purpose of U.S. foreign policy is to secure the “national interest”; that this requires being “realistic”; and that being realistic entails setting moral principles aside to clear the way for unfettered diplomacy, negotiations, and compromises with any leaders, of any nation, on any issue.
As was the case toward the end of our analysis of idealism, so is the case here: A pressing question remains to be answered. Here the question is: What exactly is America’s “national interest”? Realists use this phrase liberally; they even define their school by reference to it. But what exactly does the phrase mean?
As national security analyst Thomas P. M. Barnett explains, the term is notoriously vague and ambiguous:
“National interest” . . . is one of those great phrases constantly used in Pentagon publications, even though nobody really knows what it means. The Pentagon just knows it needs to protect American interests, promote them when possible, and never step beyond their logical boundaries—whatever those are. There is no list of “national interests” to be found anywhere throughout the U.S. Government, much less the Pentagon. You either know them or you don’t. Raising your hand during a Pentagon brief to ask what exactly these interests are is considered impolitic in the extreme.43
Barnett is not exaggerating. If you search the Internet for a concise definition of America’s “national interests,” you will search in vain. (Give it a go, but be prepared for gobbledygook.)
This is a serious problem for a foreign policy defined by the goal of securing the “national interest.” And the problem is all the more serious for a country that adopts such a policy or any portion thereof. If the purpose of U.S. foreign policy is to secure the “national interest,” and if no one, including officials at the Pentagon, knows what that phrase means, what might we expect the result to be?
Because no one seems to know what the phrase means, it will be instructive to project some possible meanings and consider what they would imply.
Might the “national interest” mean the “interest” of the nation’s current administration—whatever that happens to be? If so, then Bush, Obama, and company can do no wrong; whatever they declare as in their “interest” is by that fact the correct policy.
Does the phrase instead mean “interests” such as secure sea lines to the likes of Saudi Arabia so that U.S. corporations can buy oil from sheiks, who, in turn, use their profits to sponsor jihad against Americans? If so, then U.S. policy is rigged to kill U.S. citizens.
Does “national interest” instead mean “the power of the nation” or “interest defined as power,” as Hans Morgenthau alternately puts it?44 If so, then the question remains: Power for what purpose? Power is a means, not an end. What’s the end? What’s the ultimate goal? It can’t be the “national interest”; that would be circular.
Does the phrase rather mean “national security”? If so, what does that mean? Does it mean the security achieved by means of the National Security Agency monitoring the emails, texts, and phone conversations of everyone in the nation? If so, the national interest looks a lot like fascism or National Socialism.
Does “national interest” refer instead to the lives and rights of Americans? If so, then why couch this crucial idea in vague language? Why not say explicitly, forthrightly, and unequivocally (as egoism does) that the proper purpose of U.S. foreign policy is to protect the lives and rights of Americans from foreign aggression, and that every other aspect of foreign policy is a means to that end and must be assessed and evaluated accordingly?
We need not speculate about whether realists hold the protection of Americans’ rights as the proper purpose of U.S. foreign policy, because we can see by looking at their prescriptions and actions that they don’t. Given that the Iranian regime is feverishly striving to acquire nuclear weapons, and given that we’ve set some related context above, let’s consider some evidence of realist disregard for the rights of Americans in this area.
Exhibit A: Although the Iranian regime has murdered (or sponsored the murder of) thousands of Americans and aims to murder many more—and although the United States has the military capability to eliminate the regime and to destroy its nuclear facilities—realists advocate permitting the regime to acquire (or work toward) nuclear weapons.
Exhibit B: Although the Iranian regime has lied repeatedly to the United States for decades—all the while chanting “Death to America”—realists trust the Islamic theocracy to keep its promises, to permit inspections of its nuclear facilities, and to refrain from completing a nuclear weapon for several decades.
Exhibit C: Although the Iranian government is run by an apocalyptic cult of ayatollahs45 who believe that “Allah” will reward them with virgins in heaven if they die fighting for His cause, realists pretend that the Iranian regime will act similarly to the government of the Soviet Union, which was run by a materialistic cult of commissars who wanted to remain on earth and see the fruits of their five-year plan.
Exhibit D: Although the Iranian constitution states explicitly that the ultimate goal of the theocracy is to ensure that everyone “both inside and outside the country” submits to “the will of Allah,” and that Iran is to pursue this goal by “developing international relations with other Islamic movements and peoples, so as to prepare the way towards a united single world community” by waging “holy war” against unbelievers across the globe and by striking “terror into the hearts of the enemies of God” everywhere—realists ignore the clear and present danger the regime poses to the lives and rights of Americans.
For all the realists’ talk about being “realistic,” they manage to ignore a great deal of reality. Why? How can realists be so unrealistic? How can they fail to see and process such plain and pressing facts? They can because they have abandoned the only means of integrating and understanding such facts: moral principles.
Because realists (like idealists) accept the notion that morality equals altruism and thus that moral principles require us to self-sacrificially serve others—and because realists (to their credit) see that applying such “ideals” to U.S. foreign policy has been catastrophically destructive—realists have jettisoned moral principles as such from their thinking about foreign policy and have thereby rendered themselves unable to identify and integrate the facts of reality to which they claim allegiance.
Realists cannot identify a clear, unequivocal purpose for U.S. foreign policy because the only purpose that fits the bill is that of protecting the lives and rights of Americans—and that is patently selfish, which, in their view, means: immoral. They cannot figure out what “works” to secure the “national interest” because they cannot even say what that phrase means. In order to know what “works,” one must first know what one is working toward. They cannot see what is wrong with befriending and supporting murderous regimes, or make sound decisions about whom to trust and whom not to trust, or anything else requiring moral evaluation because the fundamental tools for engaging in moral evaluation are: moral principles.
By jettisoning moral principles from the realm of foreign policy, realists render themselves without moral guidance in that realm. Consequently, they default to the anti-intellectual cesspool known as pragmatism—the anti-conceptual “ideology” of doing whatever “works” toward an unclear goal by means of an unstated mantra that amounts to: “Anything goes—except moral principles.”
Although realism is alleged to be a solution to the problem that is idealism, it turns out to be just as bad, if not worse. What is the solution to this ugly alternative of altruism vs. pragmatism?
The solution is a foreign policy driven by moral principles that are derived from reality and thus work in reality.
Egoism holds that the proper purpose of U.S. foreign policy is to protect the lives and rights of Americans against foreign aggressors—and to do nothing else. The “nothing else” aspect is crucial. Egoism opposes any and all uses of the U.S. military except those that are vital to the protection of Americans’ rights. This is an application of the broader egoistic principle that the only proper purpose of government as such is to protect the rights of citizens. How does government protect citizens’ rights? It does so by banning the use of physical force against them and by using retaliatory force as necessary to stop and punish those who initiate or threaten force against them. Domestic policy serves this purpose by means of the police and courts; foreign policy serves it by means of the military and intelligence agencies.
According to this school, there is no dichotomy between ideals and reality, or values and facts, or morality and practicality, because the moral principles that underlie and animate the foreign policy of egoism are derived from reality; consequently, they work in reality.
The process by which the principles of egoism are derived from reality is complex, involving many observations and integrations; but, for our purposes here, the following indication, which is a condensation of Ayn Rand’s approach to the matter, will suffice.46
The principles of egoism derive ultimately from the basic alternative that gives rise to the need of morality and values in the first place: the alternative of life or death. Living things need values in order to sustain and further their lives; if they don’t gain and keep their values, they die. This is true of all living things: Trees must gain sunlight and water, or they die; rabbits must acquire food and shelter, or they die; and human beings must achieve their values, or they die. But human beings also have the power of choice: We can choose to live or not to live. If we want to live, then we need principled guidance toward that end. (If we don’t want to live, then we don’t need guidance at all.)
Why do we need principled guidance about how to live? Why can’t we just wing it or go by our gut? Human beings are not born with knowledge of how to live and prosper, and we don’t gain it automatically. (This is abundantly evident via the misery, squalor, and mass slaughters throughout history and across the globe. It is also evident in the material above regarding the devastating consequences of communist “utopias,” theocratic “paradises,” and disastrous U.S. policies toward such nations.) If we want to understand the requirements of human life, we must observe reality, activate our minds, and integrate our observations into a system of life-serving principles: a science of morality. Egoism is just such a science. It is an integrated system of reality-based principles to guide our thoughts, choices, and actions in service of our life, liberty, and happiness.
At the personal level, the principles of egoism include such truths as: In order to understand the world, you must observe reality and think; your means of knowledge is your reasoning mind. And: In order to gain the values you need in order to live and prosper, you must produce them—or trade value for value with other producers. And: In order to establish and maintain good relationships—relationships conducive to your life and happiness—you must judge people by the available and relevant facts, and treat them accordingly.
At the political level, the principles of egoism include such truths as: Each individual is morally an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others; each person has a moral right to act as he sees fit, so long as he does not violate the same rights of others. And: The only thing that can violate an individual’s rights is the use of physical force against him, which stops him from acting on his own judgment, his basic means of living. And: The only moral purpose of government is to protect the rights of citizens so that they can act on their judgment and pursue their values.
The morality of egoism is an integrated system of truths to guide people’s choices and actions in service of their needs and values—and to guide government’s actions in protection of the lives and rights of the citizens in its charge. When extended into foreign policy, egoism provides the same kind of guidance there. It guides government to prohibit the use of physical force by foreign states, groups, or agents against its citizens and to use retaliatory force as necessary against those who violate this prohibition.
That is an extremely terse indication of how the morality of egoism and, by extension, the foreign policy of egoism are based on and derived from perceptual facts of reality. But it conveys the general idea. The foreign policy of egoism is ultimately about the alternative of life or death for the citizens of the nation in question; its aim is to enable them to live.
Importantly, egoism is not a policy of “noninterventionism.” To begin with, “noninterventionism” is not a foreign policy but a floating abstraction—an idea detached from the facts of reality, detached from the requirements of human life, detached from rational discourse. In order for a foreign policy to be coherent, it must be defined by reference to a positive purpose—such as that of protecting the lives and rights of Americans. It cannot be defined by means of “non” something or other. “Nonintervention”—to what end? For what purpose?
Whether the U.S. government should or should not intervene in the affairs of a particular foreign nation or conflict depends on whether a foreign aggressor has violated or threatened to violate the rights of Americans. Has the nation in question attacked or sponsored attacks against Americans? Have the nation’s leaders called for “Death to America”? Are they working directly or indirectly (via proxy) toward that goal? Does a given conflict involve a vital U.S. ally? Has that ally been attacked? Does it need U.S. assistance to end the aggression? And so on. Such questions must be asked and answered in order to determine whether or not the United States should “intervene.”
Egoism is fully against selfless foreign interventions, but it is not merely against such interventions; it is also, and more fundamentally, for the selfish protection of the rights of Americans.
As for historic examples of egoism, the founders of America and the leaders who (ideologically) followed them were substantially of this school. Although some of them held philosophic views that were contrary to egoism, and although they did not use the term “egoism” to name their foreign policy, the statesmen from the founding era through most of the 19th century were largely egoistic in regard to foreign policy.
Observe, first and foremost, that the founders launched and followed through on a revolution to free themselves from the grips of the rights-violating government of Great Britain; a revolution in which they fought with everything they had to defend their rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness; a revolution they saw as the first step toward establishing a new nation, which would be constitutionally dedicated to protecting their rights from all such tyranny henceforth. Revolutions don’t get more selfish than that.
And the revolution was fully egoistic in intent. The carefully written document that launched it, the Declaration of Independence, specifies that all men have inalienable “rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and that “governments are instituted among men” precisely “to secure these rights.” The explicitly stated purpose of the Declaration was to sever ties with a rights-violating government and thus to enable the formation of a rights-protecting government. Statements of purpose don’t get much clearer or more selfish than that.
The egoism of the founders and early U.S. leaders can be seen in various other actions and words as well. In 1793, for example, when France and Great Britain were at war and both nations were petitioning America for alliance, George Washington signed the Proclamation of Neutrality, declaring that America had no interest in taking sides and thus would “adopt and pursue a conduct friendly and impartial toward the belligerent powers.”47 A few years later, in his farewell address, Washington maintained that America’s position of neutrality in that war was right, and he admonished against ever “entangle[ing] our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition.”48
Thomas Jefferson advocated “free commerce with all nations, political connection with none, and little or no diplomatic establishment”; and he opposed “linking ourselves by new treaties with the quarrels of Europe” or “entering that field of slaughter to preserve their balance.”49
In 1812, both James Madison and Congress thought it necessary to declare war against Great Britain because, as Madison put it, Great Britain was already in “a state of war against the United States”:
We behold our seafaring citizens still the daily victims of lawless violence, committed on the great common and highway of nations, even within sight of the country which owes them protection. We behold our vessels, freighted with the products of our soil and industry, or returning with the honest proceeds of them, wrested from their lawful destinations, confiscated by prize courts no longer the organs of public law but the instruments of arbitrary edicts, and their unfortunate crews dispersed and lost, or forced or inveigled in British ports into British fleets, whilst arguments are employed in support of these aggressions which have no foundation but in a principle equally supporting a claim to regulate our external commerce in all cases whatsoever.50
In this case, the United States did go to war—because a foreign nation had attacked Americans and seized their property.
A generation later, John Quincy Adams (chastised above by Kristol and Kagan) expressed his view of the essence of U.S. foreign policy to date. I’ll repeat Adams’s brief and eloquent passage here—with the added note that the speech from which it is excerpted was delivered on Independence Day, in celebration of the birth and essence of America:
[America] has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when the conflict has been for principles to which she clings. . . . Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.
Statements of foreign policy don’t get more selfish than that.
The extent to which the American founders and their followers lived up to this idea in practice is debatable. (I’ll leave that debate to historians.) But the idea is morally correct. America’s proper business is not to go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. Her proper business is to protect the lives and rights of Americans and, consequently, to set an example for those who might follow her lead.
Yet another generation forward, in 1851, Secretary of State Daniel Webster put it succinctly:
We, the descendants of those who achieved the Independence and established the Constitution of this country, are bound to speak out to the whole world of mankind and bear testimony to the cause of popular republican government. Let other governments do as they will: it is not our duty to traverse the earth and make proselytes. Our business is to make proselytes by our example, to convert them to republicanism by showing what republicanism can do in promoting the true ends of government.51
Again, regardless of whether Webster or the statesmen of the time applied this policy consistently, the policy is morally right. Americans should speak out to the world about the vital importance of freedom and the need of rights-protecting constitutional republics to secure it. And we should proselytize by example; we should lead the way by establishing and maintaining a government that protects and does not violate our rights.52 But “it is not our duty to traverse the earth and make proselytes.”
This is not to say that Americans do not benefit from other people and other nations being free. We quite obviously do. The more free people and free nations there are, the more there are to trade with, work with, befriend, visit, and enjoy. But the fact that we benefit from other people being free does not confer on us a “duty” to free foreigners. We also benefit from foreigners being rational, but this does not mean we should force people to think. And the analogy is exact. We can no more force people to be free than we can force them to think. If we “free” or deliver “democracy” to people who want socialism or theocracy or the like, they will vote or otherwise return themselves to such tyranny in short order. Freedom is a consequence not of nation building or ballot boxes, but of a culture in which individuals value freedom and are willing to create and sustain a rights-protecting constitutional republic to secure and defend it.
Americans should—as a matter of selfish principle—provide moral support to all foreigners seeking to establish free societies. But—on the same principle—we should use our military only in defense of Americans’ rights.
How can we move America in the direction of a foreign policy of egoism? We must (a) work to educate anyone who is willing to think about the matter, and (b) demand clarity from politicians, intellectuals, and journalists who use vague language in regard to foreign policy.
As for education, Americans almost universally believe that morality equals altruism. From that premise, there are only two ways to proceed in regard to foreign policy: Apply altruism to the field (a la idealism) and continue sacrificing Americans to bring “freedom” and “democracy” to foreigners—or jettison moral principles from the field (a la realism) and suffer the consequences of politicians and statesmen unmoored from morality and in pursuit of vague goals that they can define and redefine on the fly as they see fit. Either way, the rights of Americans will not be protected, and Americans will continue being slaughtered by the likes of jihadists and the states that sponsor them.
In order for Americans to see that this ugly alternative is a false alternative, they must come to see that the presupposition that morality equals altruism is a false presupposition. Morality does not equal altruism. Although altruism is a code of morality, in that it is a school of thought in the field, it is a false morality, in that it contradicts the very purpose of morality, which is to guide our choices, policies, and actions in service of our life, liberty, and happiness. The only code of morality that is based on and consistent with that purpose is egoism, which, as we have seen, authorizes and mandates a foreign policy of self-interest. If we want to move America toward a foreign policy of egoism, we must educate ourselves and other Americans about the morality that supports it. Toward that end, a good place to start is by reading and recommending Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness.
As for demanding clarity, we must not permit politicians, intellectuals, journalists—or anyone else who wants to be taken seriously—to get away with using vague language about U.S. foreign policy. If someone says he is for securing the “national interest” or the like, we must demand that he clarify exactly what he means by the term. Does he mean the lives and rights of Americans? If so, we must inform him of the importance of being clear about this and of not using vague terms such as “national interest” given that such terms are so elastic as to be meaningless. If by “national interest” he does not mean the lives and rights of Americans, we should press him until he specifies exactly what he does mean by it; and we should ask him how he came to the conclusion that it—rather than the protection of Americans’ rights—is the proper goal of U.S. foreign policy.
Kant was right about one thing: We must not segregate foreign policy from moral principles. Moral principles are our very means of identifying the proper purpose of foreign policy—and they are our essential guides at all times in thinking about or engaging in foreign policy. But the moral principles we must apply are not the baseless principles of “duty” and self-sacrifice; rather, they are the observation-based principles of reality and self-interest. The moral principles that should guide U.S. foreign policy are those of egoism.