Morality in Foreign Policy

“America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

– John Quincy Adams

Though well-articulated by our nation’s sixth president, the sentiment described by Adams is a rarity in today’s foreign policy conduct, in which everything from nuclear development in Iran to maternal health in South America is considered within grasp of US foreign policy. Throughout the conduct of the international affairs of the United States of America the nation has been guided by a moralistic paradigm in which certain normative values, namely individual freedom and open markets, have been held as sacrosanct and worthy of codifying into the foreign policy doctrine. The post-9/11 era of US external policy and the advent of the global war on terror have seen a consolidating of this strong morality and a willingness to justify the means by the ends, particularly when it comes to the use of force. As the world’s sole current superpower, the United States finds itself in a unique position in which it has the ability to apply these values directly upon other areas of the world without immediate tangible repercussion.

The United States stands among only a few nations in history that has ever found itself at war against an idea. So-called ‘wars’ (such as the War on Terror or the War on Drugs) are not being waged against a nation-state or even against a certain group of people, they are wars with the explicit aim to reshape the ideological tint of the global order. The Bush Doctrine in particular articulated America’s special providence to enter into conflict against a perceived threat rather than an imminent one, the emphasis being on the perception and the subjectivity of what is considered a threat to American values.

The question that arises is whose values are being encoded into US foreign policy. Are they values shared by the country at large, a consensus of the citizens on what we as a nation consider worth protecting? Or are they the values of a certain class of people, namely the Ivy-educated, wealthy elite? Marxist theory asserts that the state, the apparatus responsible for the conduct of global affairs on behalf of a country, represents the institutionalized power of the class that controls a society’s means of production. Defenders of the idea of a democracy would argue that the values exerted at the state level are representative of the population that elected those individuals.

Regardless of whose values are enshrined in the United States government, one can easily make the case that when it comes to external affairs the government as a whole tends to share a certain set of definite values that give a continuity to the pattern of American foreign policy. Despite their attempts to clearly define themselves, neither the right or the left-wings of American politics have significantly differentiated themselves on the conduct of their global affairs, especially when it comes to the willingness to apply force to defend American interests (a very vague and loosely defined concept).

One can certainly make the case that America’s role as the norm setter for the world is beneficial to the international system as a whole. After all, it was the United States who stemmed the spread of authoritarianism during the Cold War, protected the fledgling democracies of the New World from the colonialism of the European powers, and undertook significant humanitarian and peacekeeping operations during the 1990’s around the globe. Where the state should be cautious is adopting a messianic view of American power without regard to pragmatism and reason. Ideals are worth defending, but not at the sacrifice of a nation’s identity, or even worse, the lives of its citizens. It is important to not overextend our hand in attempting to refashion the entire world in our own image.

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