Academic journal article Policy Review

A Moral Core for U.S. Foreign Policy

Academic journal article Policy Review

A Moral Core for U.S. Foreign Policy

Article excerpt

IS IDEALISM DEAD? Should the promotion of American values of liberalism, democracy, human rights, and rule of law be a core element of U.S. foreign policy? Where to strike the balance between principles and interests is one of the most enduring debates about America's role in the world. But since September 11, this question has become intensely contested and deeply controversial. It has emerged as one of the central divides between the political right and left--in large part because of the history of the past seven years, the Bush administration's rhetoric, its strong association with the "freedom agenda," and its actions justified at least in part by democracy promotion (namely the war in Iraq). Yet it is also becoming a sharper division within each end of the political spectrum.

Of course, the choice between realism and idealism is a false one: U.S. foreign policy must be firmly rooted in both national interests and values. But now, after two successive presidents of opposite political parties (Bill Clinton and George W. Bush) have argued that spreading American values is itself a vital interest, there is growing skepticism in many quarters about whether trying to do so is worth significant costs, or even a true interest of the United States at all. Facts matter, and after several difficult years of pursuing a foreign policy framed as a fight for American values, more are wondering whether the sacrifice is worth it. In the view of many policymakers, politicians, analysts, and average citizens, the time has come to have a more realistic foreign policy--scaling back the United States' global ambitions, respecting the limits to America's capabilities and will, recognizing and embracing the constraints of the international system, and maintaining a healthy skepticism about the broad applicability of American values.

But if the values agenda has been discredited among many on both the left and the right and a greater realism is the preferred alternative, what would such a strategy look like? Moving beyond the slogans, would a truly values-free foreign policy really secure U.S. interests, strengthen U.S. power, and draw the sustained support of the American people? We think not. American values are an indispensable component of the U.S. role in the world--they are a key part of what unites the United States to allies in Europe and elsewhere and distinguishes the United States from countries like China. Instead of dividing conservatives and liberals, American values in foreign policy can in fact translate into a moral core that both sides can rally around. In the current political environment, as we approach the first post-9/11, post-Bush election, building such a policy bridge will be difficult. But given the stakes, it is imperative.

Skepticism on the left

The emphasis placed on promoting liberal values internationally has drawn increasing hostility among traditional liberals and within the Democratic Party. Many of those who once embraced the proud liberal tradition of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy find themselves questioning their assumptions. And for those liberals who still embrace the importance of values, their numbers are fewer. According to a June 2006 poll commissioned by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, only 35 percent of Democrats said that the United States should "help establish democracy in other countries"--whereas 64 percent of Republicans responded favorably. (1)

This skepticism is driven by several factors. First, and most fundamental, is the fact that this approach is so closely identified with President Bush and his administration's policies. In the wake of 9/11, Bush tapped into many common (and bipartisan) themes about the enduring importance of American values, but his vision is infused with a religiosity that leaves many liberals nervous. Yet even when he got his rhetoric right--for example, many liberals admired statements like his November 2003 speech at the National Endowment for Democracy--the means he chose to implement policies, such as the war in Iraq, have proven very costly. …

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