Ideology and Values in Foreign Policy

Thanks to Hampton for pointing out the Buruma piece. It’s always refreshing to read an articulate reminder of why it pays to be circumspect about the latest conventional wisdom. The last twenty years is littered with the wreckage of very convincing theories about the emerging geopolitical landscape, and the end of American hegemony might end up joining them. Still, Buruma’s debunking of the multi-polar world seems to point in the direction of Haass’ analysis, where America’s relative power declines due to a rising tide, but everyone else is still busy plugging the leaks that their boats are springing.

As for the relation between ideology, values and policy, Hampton’s probably right. I might have reacted too strongly to Kagan’s language, instead of addressing the point he was making. It’s true that political cultures vary in their emphasis on different values, and it’s also true that the countries Kagan mentions (mainly Russia and China) don’t have much of a predilection for participatory democracy.

I wonder, though, how much the Russian and Chinese political cultures embrace the ideology of autocracy, so much as the value of stability they believe it ensures. Even if I’m wrong, I’m skeptical of it motivating their foreign policy in the same way that an ideological embrace of democracy, market capitalism, communism, or theocracy have historically done. In other words, the idea of a League of Autocracies, to turn John McCain’s proposal on its head, seems pretty farfetched, and equally impractical as a League of Democracies. In the absence of a Western agenda of democracy promotion, I’m not so sure autocracy would be an operative ingredient in the autocrats’ assessment of their national interests. And Kagan seems to acknowedge as much in a quote I cited from his article:

China and Russia may no longer actively export an ideology, but they do offer autocrats somewhere to run when the democracies turn hostile. . .

The role of values in foreign policy is central and inescapable, because they shape our identities. If I tend to place a greater emphasis on interests, it’s partly because I think that we’re in need of a course correction, and partly, I admit, because an interest-based foreign policy is easier to calculate. The fact that I don’t live in a repressive society where criticizing the government can get me thrown into prison or worse, I’m sure, plays a pretty decisive role as well.

Be that as it may, Kagan’s fundamental point is that the Russian and Chinese success stories in some ways debunk the comforting liberal assumption that the march of history leads inexorably towards freedom. But whereas he believes that demands fashioning a policy that promotes liberalization, I believe that means accepting the limits of how much influence we can have over other cultures and societies.

The drawback of repressive societies has historically been their inability to nurture innovation, which in a pre-globalized world was a tremendous handicap. A big part of the Chinese success story is the role that piracy of intellectual property rights (and their insistence on technology transfers in exchange for opening their domestic markets) has played in replacing the need for innovation. But that could change as China runs out of technologies to steal and finds itself at a loss for inventing new ones.

The historical drawback of democracies, of course, is their instability, as well as their more laborious decision-making process. The unified executive and imperial presidency are in many ways attempts to mitigate this weakness, and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the administration that has most abused them has presided during Russia’s resurgence and China’s rise. I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that the worst erosion of our own democratic traditions occurred when we were busy trying to project democracy abroad.

More World Politics Review