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Sunny Streets and Dark Alleys: Morality and American Foreign Policy

On Principle, v5n4

August 1997

by David Tucker

On a tour of the Balkans in early June, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright took a break from jawboning officials to walk the once deadly streets of Sarajevo. Largely because of America’s efforts, she was able to stroll where months before no one had dared because of the deadly fire from Serb snipers intent on killing their Bosnian enemies. During her turn about the now peaceful town, as the sun broke through clouds for the first time in a week, the Secretary encountered a group of young girls. According to a reporter who was with the Secretary, she told one of the Bosnian girls, “the United States is your friend and everything is OK because we’ll make the world good for you.”

At first hearing, the Secretary’s words of reassurance sound at once both silly and arrogant, for they promise one thing beneath our dignity and another beyond our power. Is it not silly for an American Secretary of State to assure little girls that the United States is their friend? Is it not arrogant to promise that the United States will make the world good? The Secretary’s words might comfort little girls but they must surely amuse the more worldly-wise who hear in them the inept do-goodism so characteristic of recent American foreign policy.

But as the derisive laughter of the sophisticated dies away, another thought about the Secretary’s remark intrudes, prompted by the memory of her life story. Secretary Albright was once herself a small girl in an Eastern European country torn apart by conflict. She and her family came to the United States as refugees in 1948 and made a new life here. Madeleine Albright studied and worked hard and her talents and ambition were rewarded, eventually with the great honor of being named Secretary of State. Might Secretary Albright not have seen in the faces of those young Bosnian girls her own fifty years ago? Might she not have reflected in an instant on the power of a country that can protect those who otherwise have no protection and on its goodness in being willing to do so? Might it not have seemed to the Secretary that indeed the United States is a friend to the distressed and in some sense can make the world good for them as it did for her? Who can deny this or not feel pr
ide in being a citizen of such a country? Such reflection, on her experience and that of countless others, may well explain why the Secretary has said on more than one occasion that “when the United States can make a difference, it has a moral imperative to make that difference.”

Must We Help Others?


Even though we may understand why the Secretary says morality commands that the United States do good whenever it can, we must still wonder about such a claim. For one thing, if we were to accept it as a guiding principle of our foreign policy, we would clearly be set on a course of constant intervention abroad, since there seems to be an endless supply of places where people are needy and the United States can make a difference. Indeed, the Secretary has been one of the most vocal proponents of involving the United States overseas.

Does the moral imperative she speaks of exist, however? Would not an imperative to help others mean, if the needs of others are indeed without limit, that we would in effect be under an order to exhaust our resources in helping them? Does the United States have an obligation to be so heroically virtuous? Does the U.S. government have the right to demand that American citizens be so virtuous? The government, as our representative, can demand that we risk our lives in war; but it can legitimately do so only because we, who give to our government whatever power it has over us, recognize that in defending our way of life we are doing something that is ultimately good for us and our families. It does not follow from this that the government can demand that we exhaust ourselves for the sake of doing good for foreigners when doing so will not benefit us. If our government had such authority, it would cease to be our agent, becoming our master in a way incompatible with our liberty a
nd the limited government that we accept as legitimate. If there is a moral imperative in our foreign action, then, it is not to help others whenever we can, but to do no more harm than necessary in protecting our way of life.

What morality requires of our actions overseas has in our argument to this point contracted from the command that we do good to others to the admonition that we do no more harm than necessary. Some would insist eagerly that accepting this admonition represents not a contraction but a collapse of any moral basis for foreign policy, for the world is such that protecting our way of life necessarily requires that we harm others and often harm them greatly. Such people argue that the needs of nations, like the people who compose them, are unlimited while the means available to satisfy them are not. Since there is no power above the nations of the world to distribute resources among them, nations are locked in an unending and brutal struggle to get what they need. Nations are currently fighting over water in the Middle East and oil in the South China sea, for example. Above all else, therefore, nations must pursue power ceaselessly so they can be sure to prevail as best they can in
the struggle for what they need. The pursuit of power, therefore, is and should be the primary concern for a state, a concern so pressing that it leaves room for no others, not for principles or for helping others, and condones whatever harm has to be done to others, no matter how horrible.

A Secretary of State strolling a sunny street and promising to help young girls appears now to be not so much silly as irrelevant. The world is such that these promises, however well intentioned, will be undone by the pressing and brutal business of power politics among nations. This is a sobering conclusion, particularly when we consider its full implication. Subordinating all other concerns to the pursuit of power amounts to saying, as one foreign policy analyst did, that “the statesman who conducts foreign policy can concern himself with values of justice, fairness, and tolerance only to the extent that they contribute to or do not interfere with the power objective. . . . The search for power is not made for the achievement of moral values; moral values are used to facilitate the attainment of power.” Since the pursuit of power is unending, making it our primary concern leads us to seek to extend our power indefinitely or to imperialism. Indeed since, according
to this argument, we should subordinate our principles, such as consent of the governed, and morality itself to the pursuit of power, we are led to an imperialism that would be indistinguishable from tyranny.

Must We Be Tyrants?


We have indeed traveled far from the high moral ground that Secretary Albright claimed. But we cannot rest yet, for the ground upon which we have arrived — the view that morality should be subordinate to power — is unstable and shifts beneath our feet. Seeking power or having it is not always in one’s interest or good for one. The power to do as he pleases is not in the interest of a fool, for example, who, because he is a fool, will only hurt himself if he has this power. Also, what is in a people’s best interest is not necessarily identical with control of natural resources, or great wealth, or vast armies — with those things that increase their power, if this increase in power corrupts or harms them. Since power is not necessarily good for us, therefore, we need not subordinate everything, including morality, to its pursuit.

Nor must our government concern itself only with the relentless pursuit of power because we are always in a desperate life and death situation. This is too extreme a view. It implies that it is not possible to distinguish the degree of neediness or danger in which nations live. But we can and do make such distinctions. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, for example, the United States is in less danger than it was. As these things go, the difference is significant. A U.S. government document written in 1950 (NSC 68) assessed the threat to our existence and well-being posed by the Soviet Union and concluded that it was so great that it justified us in using “any measures, overt or covert, violent or non-violent, which serve the purposes of frustrating the Kremlin design”(emphasis added). Such extreme measures were justified by the peril we faced, a peril which has now expired. Therefore, as a general rule, we are no longer justified in using “any measures&q

uot; that might serve our interests.

The United States is in less danger now than at any time since Madeleine Albright was a young girl. Dangers still exist, some that may justify extreme measures, but in general we are freer now than we have been in years to act on principles other than the pursuit of power. But is it in our interest to do so, in the sense of being in some way good for us as a people? In an important sense, it is. As the debate went on in 1992 about whether or not we should intervene to end the starvation caused by Somalia’s civil war, there was a sense in the public commentary that America would be diminished somehow if it did nothing about the catastrophe befalling Somalia. There is an important element of truth in this sentiment. We have noted above that an undiluted concern with power ultimately leads to tyranny over foreigners. But if over foreigners, why not over our fellow Americans? America, after all, is a nation of foreigners. We have all come here from somewhere else — most of us
rather recently. As a nation of foreigners, how we treat foreigners bears on how we treat each other. This is true of the United States as it is for no other nation because of our founding principles. We have some slight common bonds of history but none of blood or religion. What constitutes us as a people is not race, color or creed but what founded us as a nation, a commitment to the principle that all men are created equal and all that that implies, commonly expressed in the slogan that America is the land of opportunity for all. This is a commitment to an idea that encompasses all humanity. Any human being is potentially an American citizen — indeed, a potential Secretary of State. Thus, unlike any other nation, we have a concern with humanity. One way this expresses itself is in the urge to help others, whether in Somalia, or Bosnia, or any number of other places. Given our peculiar character as a people, the absence or constant denial of this urge to help others oversea
s would diminish us. It would corrupt our sense of justice, our sense of what we owe to one another.

The Prudent Course


We have moved back toward the position of Secretary Albright, but not all the way. As American citizens, our concern with humanity is not an imperative. For although all human beings are potentially American citizens, not all in fact are or can be our fellow citizens. Those who do not believe in free government or who are not willing or able to respect our laws, for example, could rightfully be excluded from our common citizenship. Our ability to absorb new citizens might also impose practical limits on the theoretically limitless claims to American citizenship. For such reasons, distinctions will remain between American citizens and those who are not. Recognizing this, we must also recognize that our primary concern must be our fellow citizens, for this is what being a citizen means. This does not imply that we can treat those who are not our citizens brutally, as if they were animals. Our dedication to the principle that all men are created equal means that we must treat
foreigners as human beings, even as potential fellow citizens, encouraging, insofar as it is in our power, traits that would permit them to be our fellow citizens or, at a minimum, harming them no more than is necessary to protect our way of life.

What power we have to help foreigners, after first attending to our fellow citizens, or what harm we must do to protect our way of life, depends on our circumstances. Sometimes our power relative to other nations will allow us to deal with them in a rather benign way. At other times, the dangers we face may be so great that all we can do is struggle to preserve ourselves using any means available. In both cases, we would act rightly. Our principles will always incline us to deal justly with other nations but over time our foreign policy will rightly encompass both reassuring young girls on sunny streets and harming enemies in dark alleys. The trick or rather the art of statecraft—and the terrible responsibility of the statesman—is understanding when each of these is necessary.


Dr. Tucker is an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center and he is at the Department of Defense. The views expressed are his own.

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