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Why U.S. Foreign Policy Needs to Operate with a Clear Values Framework
Few people would have predicted it at the start of the year, but 2022 has become a pivotal moment in the fight for freedom around the world:
An admittedly flawed democracy in Ukraine repelled a brutal invasion by its despotic neighbor. With material help from its friends and allies abroad, Ukraine began to push Russian forces out of its territory as summer gave way to fall.
Protests against the ruling religious regime in Iran and its repressive social regulations broke out in September and have lost little of their impetus in the subsequent weeks and months.
Meanwhile, here in the United States voters rejected extremist Republican candidates and rewarded moderate Democrats as well as sane Republicans. Democrats like Sen. Mark Kelly in Arizona, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan, and Rep. Abigail Spanberger in Virginia all defeated Republican extremists, while Republicans like Gov. Brian Kemp and Sec. or State Brad Raffensperger in Georgia — both of whom refused to kowtow to former President Trump — won their races easily. While Democrats cannot by any means consider an election in which they lost control of the House a victory, by and large the American people demonstrated that they would punish candidates who refused to play by the basic rules of liberal democracy.
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All in all, then, the past year has shown that recent reports of liberalism’s demise have been greatly exaggerated by loud voices on both left and right. That doesn’t mean all is well — right-wing populists won power in Italy, Sweden, and, perhaps most ominously, Israel, after all— but it does mean that around the world liberalism is in better condition than even many of its adherents feared at the start of the year.
Beyond the false choice of interests vs. values
But 2022 also revealed the continued importance of liberal values to America’s foreign policy — as well as the impoverished way in which many of us talk about the role values should play in our nation’s approach to the world. Too often, our foreign policy debates devolve into a set of false choices between an amoral, balance-of-power-style of self-proclaimed realism on the one hand and the strictures of a morally pure internationalism on the other. Sometimes the latter camp of well-intentioned democracy advocates and human rights activists argues — wrongly — that America’s values require it to sever or downgrade ties with just about every non-democratic regime in the world.
At bottom, both these worldviews tend to see an inherent, one-to-one tradeoff between American values and interests. Some activists and advocates loudly proclaim that American interests and values are identical, but that’s far from obvious — and in any case this line of argument tacitly accepts the notion that there’s a stark choice that needs to be made here.
The truth is that values and ideas remain a critical part of geopolitical competition with the likes of China, Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. America’s interests and values aren’t necessarily identical at all times and places, but they’re not necessarily at odds with one another either. More often than not, they complement one another in some way, shape, or form. Even when they don’t, the way our values shape our interests — and the way values and ideas influence global politics — isn’t terribly well understood (if at all) in our political debates or by our policymakers.
Politics matter: why technocratic managerialism falls short in the battle for freedom
Take the Summit for Democracy the Biden administration convened a year ago this month: this conclave produced little in the way of substance beyond a paltry list of largely tactical and operational follow-up action items that could have been ripped out of the 1990s and 2000s democracy promotion playbook. It’s not that many of the issue areas the White House identifies aren’t important or that the programs it proposes won’t do any good; it’s that the solutions on offer appear inadequate to the rather large task at hand. Worse, the administration’s agenda layers a number of passing progressive ideological fads like “disinformation” and “equity” on top of these technocratic and managerial approaches — potentially freezing them in bureaucratic amber.
In the year since the first Summit of Democracy, moreover, it’s become clear that the fate of liberalism and democracy won’t be decided at all-inclusive diplomatic gatherings or through technical capacity-building programs. Instead, it will be decided on the battlefields of Ukraine, the streets of Tehran and Shanghai, and, yes, at ballot boxes across the United States and other parts of the Western Hemisphere, Europe, Africa, and Asia.
The approach needed to meet this moment is two-fold: practical steps to concretely support those fighting for their freedom abroad and a focus on basic liberal values in foreign policy. That also entails avoiding or jettisoning attempts to inject illiberal or avant-garde domestic culture war issues into America’s foreign policy — witness, for instance, the State Department promoting “International Pronouns Day” on its official social media feeds.
Concrete support for freedom abroad
As worthwhile as more USAID programs on independent media or anti-corruption may well be, they do little to help Ukrainians or Iranians risking their very lives for basic freedoms many of us take for granted. In that respect, the tens of billions of dollars in military aid and broader economic support the Biden administration is providing to Ukraine have done far more to support liberal values than any of the action items or commitments resulting from the Summit for Democracy.
But there are less obvious and equally concrete ways the United States might support those fighting for their own basic freedoms abroad. Internet access is one of them: Ukrainians and to a lesser extent Iranians have been forced to rely on the fickle SpaceX, Tesla, and Twitter chief executive Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite service to evade firewalls and cyber-attacks to access the wider online world. A U.S. government program to supply satellite internet terminals to those facing restrictions would do much more for freedom than countless declarations on the future of the internet or initiatives to counter the phantom menace of as-yet invented technologies like artificial intelligence.
A second concrete way America can support freedom in the world is by conducting tough diplomacy with allies and partners who have flawed records on fundamental human rights, corruption, and indeed basic human dignity. America should integrate and elevate these issues in its relations with the countries and carry out diplomacy in ways that seek to build broader ties with those societies overall - not just governments or a circumscribed set of economic sectors. Too often, human rights advocates and democracy supporters espouse strategies that amount to unilateral diplomatic disengagement and call for the United States to take our ball home to express disapproval about government practices - an approach that only ends up reducing U.S. influence and leverage.
A third way to support freedom is to back sensible, realistic pathways to ending conflicts like Yemen, Syria, and eventually Russia’s war against Ukraine. This means using force backed with diplomacy, and not simply giving in to murderous dictators whose actions have chipped away at ordinary citizens’ basic freedoms. Too often, slogans like “end endless wars” and “forever wars” demonstrate the mix of exhaustion and lack of imagination obscuring what’s at stake in these conflicts and what’s lost by just giving up and letting some of the worst armed political actors have their way. Just ask the people of Afghanistan today.
One final concrete way to support freedom is to continue to work of building stronger economic ties with like-minded countries that share our values. “Buy American” economic policies could and should be expanded to include formal American allies in Europe and Asia under a “Buy Allied” rubric that can, among other things, help secure and strengthen the supply chains needed to meet the international economic challenges of the years and decades to come.
Back to basic liberal values
For all the talk of their demise in recent years, basic liberal values — such President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms — remain widely popular around the world. But talk of values in America’s political debates and foreign policy discussions has tended to drift away from these core freedoms and toward more diffuse ideals that transform just about every issue under the sun into a question of human rights. However meritorious these issues may well be, the end result is a loss of focus when it comes to incorporating American values into foreign policy.
Instead, America should shift its focus back to the values of Four Freedoms: freedom of speech and worship, freedom from want and fear. As we’ve argued at The Liberal Patriot, these freedoms remain as relevant and resonant today as they did when FDR first promulgated them back in 1941. Freedom of speech and conscience, economic opportunity and security for all should be the lodestar values for American foreign policy — not an ever-expanding list of increasingly specific rights that empower activists and employ bureaucrats more than they serve the needs of ordinary citizens.
These two organizing principles: first, a focus on concrete diplomatic actions to support stronger politics over technocratic efforts, and second, a recommitment to basic liberal values embodied by the Four Freedoms — can help political leaders build a new foreign policy consensus out from the center.
Notwithstanding the increasing tendency toward isolationism within the Republican Party and foreign policy clown shows from some self-styled progressives in Congress, we’ve seen solid cooperation across party lines when it comes to certain foreign policy issues like aid to Ukraine or investments in technology at home to better compete with China. For all the partisanship that exists in today’s Washington, the center lane remains wide open on foreign policy.
But first we need to reject the false choice between American interests and values that dominates our current political and policy debates. The question isn’t whether we should pursue our interests or our values — it’s how we should advance both our interests and values where and when we can.
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