America's Bipolar Foreign Policy

The U.S. veers between realpolitik strategizing and pro-democracy moralizing. Can the best of both approaches help in the Middle East?


For years, American foreign policy has lurched back and forth between conflicting priorities. This is not due to cognitive deficiency but because when it comes to dealing with the rest of the world, America is intentionally and properly bipolar.

On the one hand there are the pulls of reality. "Realpolitik" is a strategic approach to international relations. The principal responsibility of a government is to ensure the safety of its own people. In some cases, that requires the use of military force against a clear enemy. But by extension, it may also be seen as necessitating involvement, with the use of either hard or soft American power, in areas where instability or a potential threat to the availability of important natural resources is thought to pose a longer-term but equally serious danger. Sometimes this approach may be judged in hindsight as morally praiseworthy. The United States, through its lend-lease program, helped the British withstand Hitler's Germany well before this country was involved in that conflict; we helped China resist Japanese invaders with a presidentially-sanctioned volunteer force of fighter pilots. And sometimes this approach has earned condemnation for putting this country in league with dictators -- Somoza, Batista, Pahlevi, Marcos -- because they were seen as important to our interests no matter how oppressive within their own borders.

Then there is the other pull, the one that starts with the thought that America is not like every other country, that we have a mission to serve moral causes and to champion the rights of the oppressed against their oppressors. This approach is more in keeping with who we are, how we think of ourselves, what values define us -- but it accepts attendant risk. Practitioners of this approach had no hesitation in lending American support to the protesters who toppled Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, even though Mubarak, a secularist, had been an ally in America's war against al Qaeda and worked to keep Iranian and Syrian weapons from Hamas's forces in Gaza, positions it is by no means certain will be maintained by Mubarak's successors. When Saddam Hussein's biological and chemical weapons proved non-existent, the "moral" obligation was invoked to explain the importance of securing his removal; if one accepts that U.S. foreign policy should serve higher moral purposes, it is hard to condemn eliminating a mass killer of his own people.

The problem is that there are elements of both approaches that are sound and other elements that are not. Realpolitik led us to see a threat under every international bed; we conflated indigenous uprisings against tyrannical governments with a Soviet master plan and ended up in a war in Vietnam that split the American people and left tens of thousands of Americans dead on Vietnamese battlefields. We lost in Vietnam and fought to a draw in Korea. In Cuba, Nicaragua, and Iran, we left behind a seething anti-U.S. sentiment fueled by the belief that we were the empowering force behind the tyrants who brutalized their own people. Realpolitik's practitioners would argue that it is hard to make the case for the dog that didn't bark but would insist that by stepping in to support pro-Western autocrats, other threats -- threats that would have strengthened the hand of the Soviet Union (a very real danger) -- were averted. Those who would argue against a Realpolitik foreign policy have to contend with the assertion that it is not the role of the United States government to make the world nice but to ensure the safety of the American people. If new governments in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Libya, etc., prove hostile to American interests, there will be a case to be made for "I told you so."

A morals-based or democracy-based foreign policy, which essentially requires the same kind of imperial approach (imposing American values instead of American interests) must defend itself against the likelihood that it will draw heavily and repeatedly on American resources (both money and blood) to try to remake the world in our image. There is no shortage of tyranny in the world, and attempting to eradicate it would be a costly and iffy proposition. And it's a goal that can easily backfire. Fareed Zakaria has argued wisely that it should not be America's goal just to promote democracy, but to promote "liberal" democracy, meaning a U.S.-style system that guarantees the rule of law, protects citizens' rights, etc. To promote a "democracy" in which the people elect, for example, a theocratic dictatorship that bans the education of women and stones people who prove insufficiently devout is neither wise nor good.

This dilemma -- this conflict between two opposing kinds of foreign policy, both of which have solid arguments in their favor and in opposition to them -- suggests at least two important requirements. Barack Obama has been criticized for taking too much time to make decisions, and it is true that delay may prove detrimental to realizing the successful outcome of whatever course is chosen. But these are complicated questions with dangers on all sides; when we decide to intervene or not in any international crisis, we are standing on a narrow ledge over a deep chasm. In the choice between "look before you leap" and "leap before you look," I have no problem choosing the former; lost opportunities may be made up, but serious missteps are harder to remedy.

This is the second requirement. Most presidents, agree with them or not, are not stupid. They all want to do what they believe to be in the best interests of the United States. But they have a singular authority -- everybody who works in their administrations ultimately bows to the will of the "decision-maker" who sits in the Oval Office. That is dangerous: As wise, as good, as well-meaning as he or she may be, the issues are too complex and the price to be paid by the American people is too high for one person to possess such authority. That is why the Founders wisely -- and very deliberately -- required the Congress, the representatives of the American people, to have the final say whether in sending foreign aid to support a foreign government (Congress alone has the authority to spend from the federal treasury) or in committing American troops to military action.

My heart is with the protestors toppling governments in the Middle East; my head hopes we are not elevating to power those who would replace one tyranny with another. I am a believer in the demands of Realpolitik; I am a believer in a world of democracies and freedom. Nothing is ever quite as simple as it seems.

Image credit: Reuters/Denis Sinyakov