Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Editor’s Corner Summer 2017

Editor’s Corner Summer 2017

In These Pages

Welcome to the summer issue of Orbis. As always, the journal offers articles that address a wide variety of topics of interest to those concerned with global security.  We open the issue with a piece of historical importance: an article from the Fall 2008 issue of Orbis by H.R. McMaster, now President Donald Trump’s national security advisor.  In this article, McMaster addressed the danger of basing our approach to conflict on simplistic and optimistic conceptions of war that ignore its enduring uncertainty and complexity.

Frequent Orbis contributors, James R. Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara, address potential strategies to undermine what they call China’s “gray-zone” strategy by raising political and operational barriers to entry for the Chinese, thereby causing Beijing to think twice before making its next move.elcome to the summer issue of Orbis. As always, the journal offers articles that address a wide variety of topics of interest to those concerned with global security.  We open the issue with a piece of historical importance: an article from the Fall 2008 issue of Orbis by H.R. McMaster, now President Donald Trump’s national security advisor.  In this article, McMaster addressed the danger of basing our approach to conflict on simplistic and optimistic conceptions of war that ignore its enduring uncertainty and complexity.

This issue features two article clusters.  The first addresses Russia.  Joel R. Hillison examines U.S. foreign policy toward Russia, which has been strained as a result of the latter’s aggression in Ukraine and its intervention in the Syrian civil war.  He contends that the United States is trapped in a classic security dilemma with Russia.  Only by analyzing the fundamental motivations of why states go to war can the United States successfully deter Russia without exacerbating the current security dilemma.

Nicholas Ross Smith takes issue with the West’s portrayal of Russia’s policy toward Ukraine.  He contends that rather than being imperialistic and irrational, Russia’s perceptions of Ukraine are based on the belief that Ukraine represents a vital Russian national interest. 

Carol Lutz employs the situation in Ukraine to test Transnational Ethnic Alliance Theory, which posits that the majority ethnic group in one state will come to the defense of its ethnic brethren who are a minority in a neighboring state, if that group is facing discrimination or repression.  She argues that in light of Russia’s actions in Ukraine, this theory must be modified to reflect the fact that intervention allegedly on behalf of an ethnic minority will only occur when it is in the self-interest of the neighboring state or in the self-interest of the governing elite of that state.

Our second article cluster looks at U.S. cyber strategy. Michael P. Fischerkeller and Richard J. Harknett argue that the U.S. strategic approach to cyberspace is failing against cyber threats.  It is also failing to take advantage of the security opportunities that flow from the uniqueness of cyberspace. That uniqueness, they contend, demands a unique strategy, a capabilities-based strategy of cyber persistence that is less adversary-centric and more focused on what the United States wants to be able to do in, through, and from cyberspace.

Robert Bebber contends that to meet the challenge of adversaries who seek to alter fundamentally the systemic balance of power through information-based strategies, the United States must understand that information is a strategic resource.  To address this challenge, the United States must overcome debilitating intellectual constraints and adopt new operational models in order to erode its competitors’ economic and informational advantages, attack their dependencies on other strategic resources, and exploit their information control systems.

Joseph M. Siracusa and Hang Nguyen analyze the factors that have led to the remarkable evolution of U.S.-Vietnam relations over the 42 years since Vietnam’s reunification in 1975.  Next, Uzi Rabi and Brandon Friedman consider how the scale and savagery of the ongoing conflict in Iraq and Syria have transformed Sunni-Shia sectarianism into a zero-sum politics of survival. 

For this issue’s review essay, Olof Kronvall looks at Austin Long’s The Soul of Armies: Counterinsurgency Doctrine and Military Culture and the US and UK, which addresses the need for policymakers to understand accurately the cultures that permeate the military organizations in order to gain a firmer grasp of what those organizations can and cannot do.

Impromptus and Asides: “Values” and U.S. Foreign Policy

Addressing U.S. State Department employees in early May, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson raised the issue of the relationship between U.S. interests and U.S. “values.”  His talk led some to accuse him of abandoning the U.S. commitment to human rights.  For example, The Atlantic ran a story with the headline, “Rex Tillerson Doesn’t Understand America.”  Yahoo News wrote that Secretary Tillerson had claimed that “pushing human rights abroad ‘creates obstacles’ to U.S. interests.”

Other headlines blared that “Tillerson downplays human rights in U.S. foreign relations” and “America bids adiós to role as world leader on human rights.”  Critics from his own party joined in the denunciation.  Arizona Senator John McCain claimed that by drawing a sharp distinction between American interests and American values, Tillerson essentially was discounting the latter.  The criticism of Tillerson is, of course, part of a more extensive criticism of President Trump’s alleged understanding of America’s role in the world.  However, this critique suffers from several shortcomings.

First, the term “values” is problematic.  The idea is central to modern economics, which takes as its starting point that preferences are subjective.  Exchange can take place only because two parties value the same item differently.  In that arena, subjective valuation makes sense.

In the arena of politics and political philosophy, subjectivity can lead to moral equivalency.  “You have your values. I have mine,” suggests that communist or Nazi “values” are equivalent to liberal ones.  In politics, it is better to speak of “principles.”  The principles that underpin the United States can be found in the Declaration of Independence. “Principles” as opposed to “values” claim to be objectively good.  American “exceptionalism” is based on the idea that America’s founding principles are universal in nature.

Second, the response to Tillerson’s speech reflects a failure to understand that the United States cannot be shoehorned into contemporary academic international relations theory, which posits a sterile debate between Niccolo Machiavelli, the “realists, and Immanuel Kant, the “liberal internationalists.”  The best articulation of America’s approach to foreign policy is still found in Washington’s Farewell Address of 1796: the United States should pursue, Washington argued, a path in the international arena shaped by “our interest guided by justice.”  This formula suggests that U.S. foreign policy should combine principle and prudence.

In fact, U.S. foreign policy since World War II has, for the most part, adhered to this formula.  The goal of U.S. foreign policy has been to underwrite “liberal order” in the world: a system of free trade and freedom of navigation.  The United States has not done so out of a sense of altruism, but rather of national self-interest.  Although the United States bears a burden to maintain this liberal order, it does so because it also benefits the most from this system.

Nonetheless, prudence dictates that the United States attempt to spread its principles only when it can do so in a cost-effective manner.  On the one hand, the United States is safer and more prosperous in a world populated by other democratic republics.  But on the other, the United States faces limits.  It cannot unilaterally spread democracy throughout the world. As John Quincy Adams said in a speech from 1821, “Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will be [America’s] heart, her benedictions and her prayers.  But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.  She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

Third, much of the critique of Tillerson mischaracterizes what he said.  He was making the common-sense argument that “in some circumstances,” attempting to promote human rights per se can make it harder to pursue our economic and national-security interests.  Nonetheless, he argued that the United States always must stand firmly on the side of human rights.  Prudence dictates the balance between “interest and justice.”

And prudence is the operative word here.  Aristotle calls prudence the virtue most characteristic of the statesman, who, in order to achieve his proper end, must adjust his course to the circumstances.  For instance, during the Civil War, critics of Abraham Lincoln accused him of temporizing on the issue of slavery.  He had reversed emancipation orders by two of his military commanders, failed to enforce the emancipation clauses of the Confiscation Acts, and refused to allow the enlistment of black soldiers after Congress authorized him to do so.

But Lincoln’s approach reflected prudence.  He needed to maintain a working coalition of Republicans and War Democrats—who had supported the use of force to restore the Union but did not wish to interfere with slavery—in order to prosecute the war.  He also needed to ensure the cooperation of the loyal slave states, particularly Kentucky, to prevail in the conflict.  Although both Lincoln and the radicals wished to abolish slavery, they differed on choosing the best means to achieve the end—which is the essence of prudence.  As Lincoln himself observed, the difference between himself and radical Massachusetts Republican Senator Charles Sumner was “six weeks,” in the sense that both desired the end of slavery, but Lincoln’s constitutional role obligated him to move more slowly than the radicals wanted.

Thus, it is in the case of the balance between American principles and American interests.  In foreign policy, the best is the enemy of the good.

Finally, where were these critics when President Barack Obama ignored human rights violations by Russia, Iran, and Cuba in pursuit of his policies?  Both of his secretaries of state, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, were willing to sacrifice American commitments to human rights to the pursuit of U.S. interests.

Samantha Power, Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, had the effrontery to tweet that “Brutal thugs are smiling . . . Trump/Tillerson approach is green light for repression.”  But Obama cozied up to these same brutal thugs when it suited his purpose.  There are going to be times where our security interests conflict with our concerns about human rights.

Trump’s foreign policy is still a work in progress.  But he has not strayed far from that of his predecessor.  It is always important to remember that the president of the United States has an obligation to American citizens, not to the welfare of the rest of the world. Secretary Tillerson did nothing more than reiterate this point.

External Link
Related Publication(s)