Academic journal article Parameters

A Note on Interests, Values, and the Use of Force

Academic journal article Parameters

A Note on Interests, Values, and the Use of Force

Article excerpt

The recent presidential election campaign intensified a public debate that began in earnest in November 1984 when Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger delivered his famous National Press Club speech on the use of force. That debate has evolved over the years. It began as a discussion of whether force should be withheld only for real war or also used for coercive diplomacy. Though this issue persists, the debate has come to focus primarily on whether force should be reserved for the defense of interests as opposed to the promotion of values. At one end of the spectrum are strict constructionist Weinberger doctrinaires, many of them military professionals, who believe that force should not be used either for diplomacy or value promotion--that it should be employed only to protect the United States and its allies from direct military threats. At the other end are those who believe that force is an indispensable tool of diplomacy and a legitimate if highly circumstantial means of promoting democracy, halting ge nocide, and restoring order in conditions of anarchy.

The Bush campaign argued strongly for interests, whereas the Gore campaign spoke up for values as well as interests. Indeed, Bush spokesmen condemned the Clinton Administration for dissipating US military strength across a series of military interventions and peace-enforcement obligations on behalf of value promotion. The Gore camp defended US intervention in the Balkans and Haiti on the grounds that stopping ethnic cleansing and restoring democracy served America's strategic interests precisely by promoting American values overseas.

The argument over interests versus values as bases for military action is hardly new. President Theodore Roosevelt and his foreign policy epitomized the "realist" approach to the world based on concrete national interest. Roosevelt accepted the world for what it was in the early 1900s: a Hobbesian struggle for power and influence in which it was foolish to believe in any morality other than that of raison d'etat. The best way to operate in such a world was through the maintenance of a balance of power among the major states, and war was sometimes necessary to maintain that balance. In contrast was President Woodrow Wilson's "idealist" foreign policy based on the active promotion of American values overseas. For Wilson, peace was the natural state of affairs, broken only by tyrannical states bent on conquest. The key to making the world safe for democracy was to democratize the world itself, because democracies were morally superior to other states and would not make war upon one another. Entry into World War I afforded the United States the opportunity to join Europe's democracies in ridding the continent of German authoritarianism and aggression.

Both the realist and idealist approaches have influenced US foreign policy since the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Richard Nixon was a self-declared practitioner of realpolitik who acted mainly on the basis on interest, not values. His embrace of communist China in a de facto strategic partnership was purely and simply a move to bolster the containment of expanding Soviet power and influence in the wake of US defeat in Vietnam. Jimmy Carter was Wilson-oriented in his approach to foreign policy, as was Bill Clinton. Carter placed human rights ahead of balancing Soviet power, at least until the Russians invaded Afghanistan, and Clinton used force repeatedly to push values in places--Somalia, Haiti, and the former Yugoslavia--peripheral to traditional US security interests. Or so it seemed.

Most presidents, however, cannot be easily pigeonholed as either "realist" or "idealist" because in their use-of-force decisions they were motivated by considerations of both power and values. Certainly, it is historically preposterous to argue that "the liberal fights for values in contrast to the conservative who fights for interests." [1] No American better understood the threat Nazi aggression in Europe posed to American strategic interests than the liberal Franklin Roosevelt, and it was the conservative George Bush who went to war in the Persian Gulf to vindicate his ideal of a "new world order. …

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