Last year, Burma’s military junta brutally suppressed a series of peaceful demonstrations, imprisoning thousands and killing scores, perhaps hundreds, of innocent people.
In response, most of Burma’s Asian neighbors decided it was in their interests to tolerate the junta’s actions. India, the world’s largest democracy, pledged to invest 150 million dollars for gas exploration in Burma. China reaffirmed its policy of “non-interference” in Burma’s “internal affairs.” Aside from the Philippines, most Southeast Asian nations did little else beyond offering ritual statements of concern. By and large, most of Asia’s leaders decided that their profitable trade with the junta mattered more than whether Burma’s leaders were dictatorial or democratic.
The point of the story: Most nations demonstrate enormous moral maneuverability when it comes to foreign policy. Whether democratic like India or authoritarian like China, most governments are solely guided by their national interests, and they make no apologies for conducting their foreign policies accordingly—it is natural and normal to them.
Ironically, Americans reject as “isolationism” what most of the world would probably regard as a normal foreign policy. A further irony is that America became a great nation largely by pursuing a foreign policy guided almost solely by her national interests—a point often articulated by political analyst Pat Buchanan.
Buchanan recognizes that America’s power grew because her leaders single-mindedly sought to advance her national interests. In an earlier book, “A Republic, Not an Empire,” he writes that it was “greedy, rapacious Americans” who rapidly acquired territory from the Mexicans, Spanish, British, Russians, French, and Indians. In America’s early history, Buchanan notes, even the venerable Thomas Jefferson had no qualms about negotiating the unconstitutional Louisiana Purchase with Napoleon, the great tyrant of his age. America’s forefathers were perfectly capable of practicing moral maneuverability when dealing with other nations.
In his latest book, Day of Reckoning: How Hubris, Ideology, and Greed are Tearing America Apart, Buchanan once again emphasizes the need for greater moral flexibility in U.S. foreign policy. For example, he argues that America should adopt a “grand bargain with Iran” because “if Nixon could go to Beijing and toast Chairman Mao, certainly the United States can consider ending the Cold War with Tehran.” His argument is that America’s “vital interest there [in the Middle East] is the free flow of oil out of the Gulf.” Although Iran’s leaders are undemocratic by Western standards, Buchanan’s argument is that negotiating with them would ensure that U.S. interests are protected. In addition, Buchanan believes that America should be similarly expedient when negotiating with Russia and China.
Buchanan’s position is based on his belief that America, like every other nation, has finite resources and population, and therefore has a limited ability to impose its values on the world. He quotes President John F. Kennedy: “[W]e must face the fact that the United States is neither omnipotent nor omniscient—that we are only six percent of the world’s population—that we cannot impose our will upon the other ninety-four percent of mankind—that we cannot right every wrong or reverse every adversity—and therefore there cannot be an American solution to every world problem.”
Buchanan is careful to add a qualifier: “This is not a call to isolationism. No nation with 30 percent of the world’s economy and one-fourth of its GDP tied up in trade […] is ever going to be an isolationist nation.” At the same time, he argues that too many Americans have died for non-American causes, and that America needs a more prudent foreign policy to do what’s best for her people. He quotes President Gerald Ford: “I just don’t think we should go hellfire damnation around the globe freeing people, unless it is directly related to our own national security.” Buchanan then concludes his book by saying that it is “Time to mind our own business” and “Time to put America first”—in the same sense that the Chinese government might put China first, or the Indian government would seek first to protect Indian interests.
All in all, Buchanan’s proposed foreign policy in “Day of Reckoning” is one that would probably make sense to most governments around the world. At the same time, Americans are unlikely to support such a foreign policy. I offer two possible reasons:
Firstly, our political system does not encourage moral maneuverability in our foreign policy. Rightly or wrongly, U.S. foreign policy is influenced by ethnic lobbies that limit our ability to maintain optimal ties with various countries. In 2007, for example, the Armenian lobby pushed for Congress to condemn the Ottoman Empire’s 1915-1916 Armenian genocide—even though such an act would offend Turkey, a crucial U.S. ally in the Iraq war. Although ethnic lobbies are justified in fighting for what they believe is right, it is undoubtedly true that they also limit America’s ability to cold-bloodedly advance her interests.
Second, America is bound to creedal principles that place moral restraints on her ability to conduct foreign policy. Many Americans believe that democracy, liberty, and human rights are universal values, and therefore they shudder at the thought of America making deals with tyrannical governments in Iran, Burma, and North Korea—even if these deals might objectively advance American interests. Politicians who suggest that U.S. foreign policy exercise greater moral maneuverability are often treated as fringe candidates even though their proposed foreign policies are rather normal by world standards. For example, Republican candidate Ron Paul, who proposes a flexible, noninterventionist foreign policy, is widely regarded as unlikely to win the primaries, let alone the presidency. It seems that the majority of Americans want this nation to take a leadership role in promoting American values worldwide—even if promoting these values abroad are not necessarily in America’s best interests.
That being said, despite the implausibility of America adopting the foreign policy outlined in Buchanan’s “Day of Reckoning,” it is arguable that this foreign policy represents an important option that America should have on the table. Although it is good for America to promote freedom and human rights in her foreign policy, it is also arguable that in this huge, imperfect world, some moral maneuverability is useful because it will advance U.S. interests—thereby protecting democracy in the place where it matters most: at home.