Scolding Isn’t a Foreign Policy
America needs friends, and it isn’t going to win them by delivering lectures.
States of America, and world peace. Brazil, the country with the largest population, economy and landmass in Latin America, reinforced its alignment with China as its president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva pledged to work with Xi Jinping to build a new global order and called on the European Union and the U.S. to stop shipping weapons to Ukraine. Indian officials reported that China is supporting the development of a military listening post on Myanmar’s strategic Great Coco Island in the Bay of Bengal. Saudi Arabia, which flirted a few weeks ago with opening diplomatic relations with Israel, is intensifying its oil cooperation with Russia and now seeks a meeting with Hamas. Farther south, a Sudanese military faction backed by Russia’s Wagner Group battles for control of Africa’s third-largest nation.
The usual spinners and makeup artists are doing their best to make the disorderly unraveling of the American-led world order look like a visionary triumph of enlightened foreign policy, but former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers expressed a more cogent view. Describing America’s increasing loneliness on the world scene, Mr. Summers said, “Somebody from a developing country said to me, ‘What we get from China is an airport. What we get from the United States is a lecture.’ ”
When the Biden administration steps down from the bully pulpit, good things can still happen. A year ago, Ferdinand Marcos Jr.—son of the U.S. Cold War ally and Philippine strongman whose 1986 overthrow was hailed by democracy activists as a milestone in world history—ascended to his father’s former office after a decisive victory in a less-than-pristine election. The democracy lobby was appalled. Six Democratic senators, including three members of the Foreign Relations Committee, wrote a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken warning him to prioritize democracy and rule-of-law issues. Their core prescription for managing the Filipino leader was the same one they prescribe for almost every American bilateral relationship: Lecture more, and when that fails, use sanctions.
Fortunately, the administration was smarter than this. While the Philippines ranks low on the Freedom House global freedom index and ranks high on Transparency International’s measurement of perceived corruption, its location makes the country’s cooperation vital for any serious attempt to deter China from an invasion of Taiwan. Stroking and petting the democracy lobbyists while insulating the relationship from their ill-counseled meddling, Team Biden persuaded Mr. Marcos to allow the U.S. access to four new strategically important bases on its territory as the two countries launched their largest joint military exercise in three decades.
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This is surely a better outcome than anything the Biden administration has accomplished by the impassioned stream of moralistic lectures it unleashed against the crown prince of Saudi Arabia.
On Mr. Blinken’s recent visit to Vietnam, he again chose morality over moralism, refraining from criticizing the Communist Party of Vietnam for its many policies that displease the democracy lobby in the interest of shoring up the coalition of states aiming to prevent Chinese hegemony in the Indo-Pacific.
Dean Acheson, Harry S. Truman’s secretary of state, thought deeply about the place of morality in foreign policy. “The righteous who seek to deduce foreign policy from ethical or moral principles are as misleading and misled as the modern Machiavellis who would conduct our foreign relations without regard to them,” he said in 1964.
America’s Cold War policy aimed at stopping the spread of Soviet tyranny was, Acheson rightly believed, deeply moral. Today, the Chinese Communist Party has become an expansionist, tyrannical power whose inordinate ambition endangers freedom world-wide. America’s interests and values both lead us to oppose that ambition, even as we seek to avoid the catastrophe of another great-power war.
Too many self-described democracy activists want the U.S. to dissipate its diplomatic energy in moralistic posturing. They would rather we prioritized sermons and sanctions over building a multilateral coalition to check Chinese expansion. Their problem is not that they love righteousness too much. It is that they have thought too little and too superficially about what righteousness really demands.
Moral foreign policy often requires pragmatism. Defeating Nazi Germany required an alliance with the equally evil Soviet Union. And President Nixon’s rapprochement with Mao’s China, then at the horrifying acme of the Cultural Revolution, similarly was driven by the need to counter the greater threat posed at that time by the Soviet Union.
After the Cold War, many Americans thought that global moral improvement had replaced national security as the principal goal of American foreign policy and that pragmatic calculation was a form of moral cowardice.
Those illusions can no longer be sustained.
America needs friends now, and nobody likes or trusts the village scold.
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