Foreign Policy, Values and Universal Applicability

Foreign Policy, Values and Universal Applicability

Values, principles, interests, objectives – though they are too often casually conflated to mean the same thing, there is a difference between these various words. All countries may claim to have values in foreign affairs, but they usually mean interests or strategies. Values are something else; they are deep-seated, usually inherited though long cultural, societal or religious traditions and occasionally through landmark historical events unique to that specific nation. Rarely, an individual through his or her charisma, example or doctrine, might contribute an obligation or sense of values to policy.

By these criteria, not many countries can be said to base their foreign policy on a value-system. Almost none would be able to assert that their policies have lived up to that value -system.  Nations that professed to be anchored to an ethical foreign policy, for example, as was specifically enunciated by Foreign Secretary Robin Cook at the start of the first Labour government under Tony Blair in the United Kingdom, found to their chagrin, within a few short months, that such claims were demolished in the face of the harsh reality of inter-state relations.

National interest is often put forward as a rationale for pursuing a particular line of policy. Interest is a totally fungible term; the national interest is not to be found on a piece of paper locked away in some cupboard in the foreign ministry. It is by its nature transitory and ephemeral.

Values are professed, espoused and promoted in the main by Western countries. These are the products of political revolutions rather than religious or cultural traditions. Thus we have the British Glorious Revolution, the American Revolution, the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution, all of which were originally specific to the country of origin but were later sought to be exported in the context of values, eternal and uncontested – universal, if you like – in an expeditionary manner to the rest of the world.


The victors of the First World War and in particular Woodrow Wilson, sought to endow world affairs with a moral code. After the Second World War, Western leaders, who included Jan Smuts of apartheid South Africa, took matters further with casting the Declaration of Human Rights in the context of their principles and describing it as universal, despite the racial discrimination then prevalent in the United States and South Africa, and the colonial empires then controlled by several European states. Colonialism was the antithesis of ethics, values and human rights.

The values professed by the Western bloc are in general those of democracy, liberalism, and human rights, all deployed as a part of the West’s campaign to oppose the Soviet Union and communism. Values are an overarching and legitimizing pillar of the West’s external relations, highlighting the dimension of eschewing the politics of self-interest and realist power politics. The West considers its values should be observed by other nations in order to make the world safer and more peaceful. The gulf between profession and practice make such pretensions appear hypocritical to many non-Western countries.

Contemporary international law is predominantly a creation of West Europe and USA and these two have a strong interest in maintaining and strengthening it. The real divergence comes from the South and Asia. The relevance of shared values shrinks when big Asian countries are not inclined to provide support to the West to project its civilizing global order. Europeans first, and then Americans, had mastery over power, concepts and values for several centuries. In the new world, the inherited assumptions of West and East may have no purchase, belying the claim that democracy and free discussion are exports of a progressive West to a backward East. The Western narrative in which its values enriched the rest of the world may conceal a complex truth; that it will not be as easy to set the world agenda as it was seventy three years ago.

As German Jurgen Habermas wrote ironically: “Our values are universally valid values that all other nations should accept in their own best interests. This pseudo universalism is a kind of universalized ethnocentrism.”   From China, leading intellectual Wang Hui writes, “nothing but its overwhelming hegemony gave Western universalism the appearance of being universal, leading many to believe it was universal … The core of Eurocentrism lies in its having established rules according to the demands of Western interests and then having universalized them.”

 ‘Our size fits all’ was legitimated by the spread of Western culture through colonialism and neo-colonialism. In Europe there was a fusion of cosmopolitan ideas of universal rights with the emerging institutional capacity to protect those rights, though the shared values within the West did not necessarily mean that such ideas would inform its international policy.

Asian Values

The West took it for granted that its values were the predestined victors in the race for ideological and moral superiority and a model for humanity. Bringing democracy everywhere is not different from the approach of the colonial powers of the 19th century. Democracy may eventually prevail, but emerging Asian powers due to their instinct, tradition, historical circumstance and culture, will not necessarily share each of the values portrayed as universal. Efforts to spread Western values will no longer go unopposed by rising powers which are governed by national priorities and not global community values. In practice, nations do not pursue normative agendas at the expense of their national interests.

The unequal cultural factor is hard to eliminate: cultural patterns and values deriving therefrom are at variance between the West and Asia. In the latter, there is a sense of identity from civilization rather than from the nation state. This is combined with a strong work ethic in South and Southeast Asia, where families spend up to 50 per cent of their income on children and there is the unshakeable importance of family as a unit.Individualism is breaking out with economic freedom expanding in tradition-bound societies, but the individual awakening remains embedded in the family unit and family life will probably avoid the atomization and anomie of the dissolving social glue by moving to modernity without yielding to the Western value system. India, for example, regards the modern state as founded on and sustained by sovereignty, territoriality and raison d’état whereas the West has diminishing regard for sovereignty within territorial space, a desire for extra-territoriality in its aspirations, and a penchant for direct and indirect intervention to promote its values.

The Problem with Universality

There is a deep-rooted Western assumption that the expansion of individual rights and democracy can only do good. The West believes in freedom over discipline, individual rights over community rights, the quality of life over hard work, the individual over the family, media freedom over restraint, ration over religion; that the expansion of democracy in whatever form can only be good for any society, and that Western social patterns are valid for all time in all places. Western advocacy of democracy is prescriptive; it took centuries for it to evolve in the West, but non-Western countries are supposed to move swiftly towards the Western pattern. The selective application of democracy as a tool to target opponents and spare its allies has made the West lose credibility.

There can be no return to expeditionary ideas of exporting values in the name of liberalism or even worse, civilization. Democracy is plural, not singular; and it is a culture as well as a set of institutions. Good governance can be defined in many ways; it is regarded as potentially valuable and desirable. Democracy, like civilization, has its own national and ethnic characteristics, and there can be no ‘acculturation’. Many outside the West regard their systems as more appropriate for their societies. The issue is to balance individual and community rights, and Western-style democracy and capitalism will not abolish the particularities of religion and culture. Abandonment of former empire must be accompanied by revision of notions of national and racial superiority. The central event of the modern era is the intellectual and political awakening of Asia and its emergence. The future will be more cosmopolitan even without a total shift of power from West to East. The international system is going to progress with each one following own path to modernization (as in the economic or political transformation of Europe itself), determined by unique value-systems, historical circumstances and cultural traditions.

# Picture:Council of Four at the WWI Paris Peace Conference, May 27, 1919, (L – R) Prime Minister David Lloyd George (Great Britian) Premier Vittorio Orlando, Italy, French Premier Georges Clemenceau, and the US President Woodrow Wilson, Source: Wikimedia Commons

The author is a former foreign secretary of India

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