The Road Always Taken

The Road Always Taken

Foreign policy is generally reflective of both what a country values and its interests are. Values are beliefs or ideals about what is good or desirable; interests broadly refer to a country’s goals or ambitions. For instance, Switzerland favours non-interventionism, implying that the country values state-sovereignty and self-determination and its interests lie in avoiding unnecessary warfare. For the most part, the two components align as they dynamically influence one another. However, when values and interests diverge, this conflict is reflected in policy and double-standards are exposed. The United States is a great example of this. Its decisions to intervene in Iraq and Afghanistan but not in Rwanda, Bosnia and most recently in Syria begs the question, why does the United States selectively intervene? Are some lives more valuable than others?

In this essay, I argue that when interests and values diverge, policy decisions are dominated by national interests rather than values because values do not provide directives, are sticky and ambiguous.

The divergence operates on the practical principle of ‘I have values until they impede what I value’. A current example of this is the ongoing controversy surrounding refugees in Europe. Malta and Italy were recently criticised for betraying European values when the rescue ship Aquarius carrying migrants and refugees was refused by both. Similarly, President Trump’s Justice Department policy that separated children from their parents at the US-Mexico border raised a heavy outcry about violating American values of fairness, equality, openness, and generosity. While the President rescinded the policy eventually, it sent a clear message that strong borders are greater priority than upholding values. This raises the larger question of “why values take a backseat in these cases?”. In my opinion, there are three core reasons:

Values provide perspectives, not directives

Values guiding foreign policy like that of equality, fairness, inclusion, freedom etc. provide a moral compass. At best, they serve as a benchmark to evaluate policy decisions against. However, the crucial judgement of which decisions impede values and which ones don’t is up to subjective interpretation. Sometimes this judgement is simple and is accompanied by broad consensus. For instance, it is widely accepted that terrorist activities go against our core values of tolerance, peace and human rights. However, the judgment can be tricky and unclear at times. America, under the guise of the ‘War on Terror’ and national security considerations, sought to re-establish torture as a legitimate method of interrogation. If torture techniques are used to defend sovereignty, does that go against American values? Although the efficacy of these techniques is contested, if the results can help save lives, is it justified? These questions have no clear answers.

Thus, values provide perspectives but not directives. Interests, on the other hand, are more directive in nature because the end goal is an outcome, rather than an ideal. Hence, action points that lead up to the goal can be clearly defined. In the case of divergence, definitive interests can better dictate the direction of foreign policy.

Values are sticky 

French values of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity) have been around since the time of the French Revolution. Chinese values of harmony, benevolence, righteousness, courtesy, wisdom, loyalty, and filial piety are derived from Confucianism, and these centuries-old values continue to influence policy. Since values are often woven into the nation-building narrative of countries, they become closely associated with nationalism and national identity and eventually seep into the consciousness of the masses. As a consequence, these values tend to remain more or less sticky over time. While the nation may embrace new ideals, the ones woven into its history are considered the ‘core’ values, which are supposed to guide the country’s policies.

National interests, on the other hand, are far more dynamic and rapidly evolve along with the changing geopolitics and alliances. What is in a nation’s interest today may change tomorrow. Wars, violent conflict, major diplomatic escalations, brinkmanship, change in domestic leadership could all serve as contributing factors to this evolution.

Since national interests are more fluid, they can dynamically respond to a country’s changing priorities and are more relevant to policies, rather than values.

Values are ambiguous 

Values serve as ideals, meaning that there is always room for subjectivity and interpretation. Ambiguity becomes problematic not because there exist multiple interpretations, but because there is no consensus on which interpretation should be followed by everyone. As a result, ensuring widespread acceptance becomes close to impossible.

The best illustration of this is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), often cited as the gold standard of shared values. For instance, Article 18 of the UDHR states that everyone has the right to freedom of religion, freedom to change his religion and freedom to manifest his religion in teaching, practice, worship and observance. However, Said Raja’i Khorasani, an Iranian official and representative to the UN claimed that the UDHR was based on a “secular understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition” and that it is impossible for Muslims to implement it without contravening Islamic law. This argument was later put forth by other member nations. So how can one expect foreign policies to align with ideals that are neither defined nor interpreted in the same way? What does one turn to when alternate value systems co-exist?

For these reasons, national interests largely outweigh values while taking foreign policy decisions. This is not to undermine the importance of values, for they play the critical role of serving as a moral compass. However, when interests and values are pitted against one another, one ultimately trumps the other.

When two roads diverge in the woods, we know which one is almost always taken.


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