Pragmatism Isn’t Enough

Sanity, pragmatism, and prudence are necessary. But are they sufficient? A response to Joseph S. Nye.

By Richard Just

Tagged Foreign PolicyHuman RightsIslamTerrorism

When it comes to foreign policy, the most basic characteristics we should want our presidents to possess—prudence, rationality, a thoughtful knowledge base about international affairs—are in terrifyingly short supply in the 2016 campaign. Donald Trump openly endorses torture and calls NATO “obsolete” while noting that he doesn’t “know that much about it, but I learn quickly.” Ted Cruz suggests that we “carpet bomb” ISIS, and advocates the patrolling of Muslim neighborhoods in the United States, a morally grotesque proposal that would also significantly damage America’s international standing. On the far other side of the ideological spectrum, Bernie Sanders mostly seems to view foreign policy as a nuisance. For instance, when asked during a debate to identify the chief national security threat facing the United States, he chose climate change—which sounded very much like a bid to avoid actually talking about national security.

In this context, the thing that stands out most about Joseph Nye’s foreign- policy advice for the next President (“Where in the World Are We?” Issue #40) is its sheer—and welcome—sanity. Nye takes readers on an even-keeled, pragmatic tour of world affairs. He rationally and reasonably identifies the range of challenges we face—from “managing the rise of China” to “finding degrees of intervention that do not become a slippery slope.” He wants deep U.S. engagement in world affairs, but none of his proposals is going to start World War III. If there were a watchword for his overarching philosophy, it would be: prudence.

Nye’s levelheaded outlook broadly aligns with what I take to be the foreign- policy instincts of Hillary Clinton—the only candidate who has given voters reason to think she would be a trustworthy foreign-policy President. When Clinton speaks about international affairs, she sounds entirely different than any of her opponents—which is to say, she sounds both knowledgeable and sane.

We could all sleep well enough at night with Clinton executing a version of Nye’s general proposals. Yet I also wonder: Is there anything more we might expect from a future Democratic president? Sanity, pragmatism, and prudence are certainly necessary qualities for a liberal foreign policy. But are they, in a best-case scenario, sufficient ones?

Here and there, Nye gestures at the notion that there might ultimately be more to a successful liberal foreign policy than prudent management of American interests and case-by-case pragmatism. He mentions at one point that presi- dents should “project our values,” and suggests that “a President needs a concept of America’s place in the world.” He writes that “creating and maintaining an architecture for liberal leadership should continue to be a central purpose of our foreign policy.” But on the whole, Nye treats the “values” side of foreign policy—the promotion of human rights and human freedom—as a decided afterthought.

To understand what’s missing from Nye’s argument and why, consider his discussion of terrorism. “Experts estimate the annual risk of an American being killed by a terrorist at one in 3.5 million,” he writes. “Americans are much more likely to die from drowning in a bathtub (one in 950,000). Radical Islamic terrorism kills fewer Americans than attacks by school shooters and disgruntled co-workers.” This same talking point is, apparently, often deployed by President Obama: As The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg recently reported, “Obama frequently reminds his staff that terrorism takes far fewer lives in America than handguns, car accidents, and falls in bathtubs do.”

If radical Islamic terrorism were conceived of purely in terms of the coldly probabilistic threat it poses to the physical safety of Americans, then this analysis would make sense. But that would be an excessively narrow way to understand terrorism. ISIS is not simply a challenge to our safety. It’s also a challenge to our political system and our values. Of course, there is little prospect of ISIS’s ideology supplanting democracy here in America. But if we care about the fate of human rights and human dignity in the rest of the world—if we care, for instance, about the plight of the refugees fleeing Syria or the status of women in the Middle East—then we have no choice but to take the threat from ISIS more seriously than we take the threat from bathtubs.

Nye isn’t excessively complacent only about terrorism. He also suggests that American foreign policy as a whole is in much better shape than is commonly thought: “While the United States has many domestic problems, America is not an empire in decline like ancient Rome, which had no growth in productivity and suffered from bloody civil wars. . . . Campaign rhetoric notwithstanding, we are not a pitiful giant in absolute decline.”

We must take the threat from ISIS more seriously than the threat from bathtubs.

As with Nye’s analysis of terrorism, this assertion is both narrowly true and broadly misleading. It’s accurate only if one takes the most limited view possible of American foreign policy. Yes, we are the most powerful country in the world, and that’s in no danger of changing; and yes, it’s true that no country or terrorist group poses an existential threat to our way of life here in the United States.

But if the goal of U.S. foreign policy is also the promotion of certain values, then it becomes impossible to argue that things are going well. On the contrary: Things are going terribly. Challenges to our values—that is, challenges to liberalism—have grown stronger in recent years, not weaker. Obviously, these trends are more qualitative than quantitative. But one organization that does measure them is Freedom House, a human-rights group that annually assesses the state of every country’s political rights and civil liberties. Recently, the group concluded that 2015 was “the 10th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.” Even worse: “The number of countries showing a decline in freedom for the year—72—was the largest since the 10-year slide began. Just 43 countries made gains.” And: “Over the past 10 years, 105 countries have seen a net decline, and only 61 have experienced a net improvement.”

In short, despite how it sometimes feels to us in the West—where welcome progress on issues like gay rights has lulled us into thinking that history as a whole is bending automatically in the correct direction—the state of worldwide liberalism is not good, and getting worse. The challenges to liberalism are coming from a number of philosophical traditions and places. Radical Islam, whether in the version put forward by ISIS or the Taliban, is one such challenge, but there are many others. China—the world’s second most powerful nation and one capable, like the United States, of projecting its political values into other countries—is retreating further and further into authoritarianism. As the group Chinese Human Rights Defenders notes:

In 2015, Chinese authorities’ persecution of human rights defenders followed a trajectory of increasing severity and prevalence, which has become a hallmark of President Xi Jinping’s three-year leadership. Authorities escalated the relentless assaults on fundamental liberties, further tightened the stranglehold on expression, reduced the already contracted space for civil society, and utilized hard-nosed methods to rein in human rights defenders.

Russia, the third most powerful country, is also trending in the wrong direction. According to Human Rights Watch, “The Kremlin’s crackdown on civil society, media, and the Internet took a more sinister turn in 2015 as the government further intensified harassment and persecution of independent critics.” At the same time, Russia has grown more aggressive in recent years about projecting its authoritarian values abroad, whether by destabilizing Ukrainian democracy or propping up Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Even in places where progress might have been expected, the news for liberalism is not especially good. Cuba’s recent rapprochement with Washington raised hopes that the Castros might begin to liberalize. Instead, the government arrested more than 50 dissidents right before Obama arrived in March.

And, maddeningly, it’s U.S. allies who can often be found doing damage to the cause of human freedom. Saudi Arabia is not only one of the world’s most repressive states, but also a generous funder of illiberal voices in other countries. Meanwhile, here’s how Amnesty International summarizes the situation in Egypt: “Five years since the uprising that ousted Mubarak, Egypt is once more a police state.”

This grim tour of the world is not meant to suggest that all is doom and gloom. Nor do I want to imply that there are simple solutions to the problems I’ve described. In many cases, there may be no short- or medium-term solution at all: Certainly, there is no policy available that would cause Putin to transform into a liberal or China to begin moving quickly toward democracy.

But it is always possible for Washington to do more in the service of international liberalism and human rights. We can set a powerful example ourselves, by closing the prison at Guantánamo Bay and showing a degree of decency and mercy in the cases of apparently well-intentioned whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. We can pressure our human-rights-abusing allies like Saudi Arabia and Egypt to begin opening their societies. We can publicly encourage democratic activists who stand up against repressive governments. We can massively increase funding for initiatives like the National Endowment for Democracy, which do the difficult and admirable work of promoting freedom worldwide.

And at the broadest level, the next President can let it be known—to our diplomats, to our allies, to our enemies—that the promotion of human rights and human freedom are a major American objective. There are any number of ways for a politician to send this signal, but spending more time with dissidents and less time seeking the counsel of human-rights abusers like Henry Kissinger would be a good place to start.

At a moment in American politics when a harsh brand of ignorance appears ascendant, there is certainly much to be said for cool, intelligent pragmatism—especially on foreign policy, where a president can act largely unilaterally and the stakes are so high. And if the next President were to exclusively follow the pragmatic foreign-policy playbook laid out by Nye, she or he would at least do little harm. But my hope is that liberals will, in the years to come, ask and expect the new commander in chief to do more: to give the values side of foreign policy the attention and prominence that it deserves.

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Richard Just is the former editor of National Journal magazine and The New Republic.

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