We debate it, we struggle with it, we find it confusing. We accuse our leaders, no matter who they are, of being inconsistent, of not having one, and, of course, of screwing it up. We don't, as individuals or as collectives, agree on what it should be. It is, without a doubt, one of the most difficult things for people to grapple with. In fact, the very problem is that we wrestle with it, rather than develop it.
But, that need not be so. Here's why.
Foreign Policy consists of two elements, and they are always so diametrically opposed that it is intrinsically impossible to reconcile them.
The first element is Values.
We believe, and rightly so, that our Foreign Policy should reflect our values. In the United States we like to believe that our values are centered around individual freedoms and human rights. Not all of us see those in the same way, and never will. However, in the most general sense of the words, we probably agree.
We may, or may not, individually agree on certain elements contained in those concepts. That's fine. It makes for some difficult relationships between us, but...we're all human so that's a given. For example, let me use one of our true hot-button issues. For some of us, the freedom to choose to have an abortion is simply an expression of personal freedom. For others, usually citing their religious beliefs, it is regulated by a higher power and should not be left to the individual.
Whichever side you choose, there's no question that we disagree. Most of us can disagree strongly and still stick within the framework of our legal constraints. Unfortunately, that is not always true. I have no doubts that regardless of what the law says, we will always disagree on this issue. That's simply because once religion becomes the basis for our decision we're going to.
So, the first element of our foreign policy is Values.
The second element, which could not be more different, is Interests.
Interests are not quite so abstract. They are typically nuts and bolts things that can be easily defined. They are, simply put, much more concrete. However, they are not without their own issues.
It is easy (and accurate) to say that we have Interests in the Middle East. Much of the oil that drives our economy comes from there, so we have a real reason to care about events that occur there. Given our dependence on oil, it's Really Important to us. I've you've read my writing, you already know what I think of that, but the fact remains that we care largely because it's in our best interest to care.
During the Cold War our interests were deemed to be stopping the spread of Communism, and that meant we joined in all sorts of activities around the world. We fought in Korea, even though we had no other reason to do so. We fought in Vietnam because we believed it was in our Interests to do so. As a note, I freely acknowledge that the regimes we opposed were not paragons of human rights and freedoms, but that isn't the reason we were there.
These two elements are polar opposites, and they tend to distort and corrupt any attempt to have a cohesive Foreign Policy. In the past we have supported outrageous dictatorships that trampled human rights because we thought it was in our Interest to do so. Then, when we decide to suddenly oppose them, we do so because our Interests changed and we were able to put on our Human Rights hat. Not only is that a terrible way to act, but it causes confusion and dismay (outright hatred) from those who seek to count on our stability. The Saudis can't understand how we supported Mubarak in Egypt for so long, and then threw him under the bus. It's simple: our Interests changed!
While I do not support the concept of Isolationism, it would make foreign policy much easier. If we had no interests, our foreign policy could become what it should be: Human Policy.
I could write volumes about how to do that, but the answer can be distilled down into a simple concept.
We need to move towards a place where we are not Dependent upon other countries and regions, while still preserving an appropriate degree of Interdependence. Big words, I know. Nevertheless doable, I believe.
Global trade is here, and it's growing and will grow larger every day. That is especially true of certain raw materials. That does not automatically equate to dependence. If we are objective, and we seldom are, we could look at any situation anywhere in the world and ask Why do we care?
If the answer is that we need the [insert specific natural resource] that only they have then we know that's a place we should search for better options. If, on the other hand, we are able to answer because no human being should be forced to live like that then we can respond differently.
In the future I'm going to address some specific situations more directly, but I already know what some of my readers will say. Their response, perhaps phrased differently will sound like this:
What you're saying is fine, but that's not the Real World. We have to deal with reality, and sometimes we need to be able to go in and kick butt!
My response is very simple.
If you're going to respond simplistically, rather than honestly attempt to confront the underlying problems that limit your response and force you to choose between Values and Interests, what does that say about you?
If you're not interested in striving for something better, something more...enlightened, then I think it says a lot!