Ideas matter, in particular, what nations value and how they organize themselves. They influence what states do in foreign policy, establishing the parameters of what is desirable and what is acceptable. Not every course of action is open to states because of their traditions, history, and aspirations. Not every course of action is desirable because it is not aligned with the deeply held worldview of its nation. A U.S. foreign policy, therefore, that does not reflect the principles upon which this republic was founded is both unsustainable and undesirable.
But what this means in practice is not always clear, leaving room for vigorous debates on what the relationship between “values” and foreign policy ought to be. My argument here, seeded by Dan Twining’s great paper, is that a Republican foreign policy has to start from a recognition of certain limits of universal principles and of democracy. For example, our geopolitical rivals (China and Russia, in particular) do not and will not accept liberal democratic principles, setting up the conditions for a long-term confrontation that we cannot wish away. At the same time, many of our allies (e.g., Hungary) have particular articulations of democratic governance that do not perfectly match a liberal political model. Finally, in our own body politic, we do not agree on many “values” or rights, establishing clear limits on what it is appropriate to pursue abroad.
In brief, we need to rethink the relationship between our ideas and our foreign policy—first, because of the world; second, because of us.
Deep cleavages are written in the history of nations. Moved by the annus mirabilis 1989, we thought that we could overcome these differences by restating the universal applicability of the liberal model. If democracy, based on separation of power and on the division of the secular from the religious, was a universal aspiration, then it would take root in distant lands, bringing liberty and stability. The world was thus converging—with hiccups, but still with inexorable determination—into something resembling a Kantian “perpetual peace” among satisfied individuals.
But this belief has met its geopolitical limits. What we value—liberal democracy—is not what everyone values and wants. The Arab world may not want democracy, only some sort of justice from perceived historical slights or, in some cases, the spread of Islam. Russia will not become a democracy because the longing for imperial grandeur trumps the desire to have multiple viable parties. China’s middle class, albeit growing in numbers and in wealth, may be content to trade off political participation for stability, access to new markets, and prestige drawn from imperial expansion. Democracy and the political principles that are at the foundation of the United States are unlikely to take root in our rival powers and, therefore, cannot be the solution to international competition and conflict. Democracy, therefore, has reached its geopolitical limits.
The fact that we have rivals is in itself a symptom of the limits of liberal appeal. Great power competition—but, more broadly, any international competition—is a clash not merely of material forces but of ideas and beliefs. Ideological differences have never disappeared, and only our naïve faith that there were no viable alternatives to the liberal way of life has allowed us to imagine an ideological convergence of the world. But the world did not converge. U.S. rivals not only oppose our economic or military strength, but also are hostile to the principles that underwrite our political order. We may hope that they will change their minds and somehow different domestic regimes will transform our rivals into peaceful partners, but hope is not a strategy.
It is important to recognize that the root of the problem here is not a passing intellectual dispute. The divergences between the United States and its great power rivals are not determined by academic theories or ideas concocted by unemployed intellectuals drinking soy lattes on the Parisian Left Bank. They are civilizational and thus deeply embedded in the national identities of the states. They are long-term and cannot be negotiated away. And while it is natural and noble for the United States (and for many in the wider Western world) to believe that liberal democracy can be extended to our rivals, it is an unfeasible end goal at this point.
The geopolitical limits of the liberal democratic model are visible also within the Western alliance, albeit obviously to a much lesser degree. Because our allies are among the greatest assets we have in the world, giving us an enormous strategic advantage over our rivals, we have to be careful in how we treat them. We have to nurture them but we should not expect them to become uniform in their domestic political arrangements. Political liberty has various national expressions, which may not match ours. Some states may have a tradition of a tight connection between political life and religious faith; some may be more accepting of strong leadership, respectful of the law but not a coequal of other branches of government; and some are protective of their national way of life and may oppose the progressive definition of human rights as the satisfaction of self-preferences. In brief, to be legitimate and thus lasting, democracies must take particular national expressions. Universality is not uniformity.
A Republican foreign policy ought to recognize the legitimate value of these particular national expressions of liberty and not push for a uniform form of domestic political order. Calling some U.S. allies (e.g., Hungary or Poland) “illiberal” is not only analytically useless but also strategically dangerous. When we pursue policies to reverse what we consider policies that do not align with our views of what a liberal democracy ought to look like (e.g., insisting on the introduction of certain progressive rights or supporting groups opposed to the democratically elected governments), we end up undermining the strength of these allies by weakening their national unity. Instead of building resilience in these countries, we exacerbate internal divisions and put in doubt the legitimacy of the existing order, creating conditions ripe for further external (and nefarious) interference.
In the past two decades, our allies had few options but to accept our will. Now, they have the enticing alternative of receiving support from our rivals, including China and Russia. In a situation of enhanced great power competition, some allies may choose to seek backing from our rivals in order to avoid U.S. pressure that goes against their national will. Imposing a uniform format of liberal democracy is therefore not a strategy of strengthening our alliances. On the contrary, it risks weakening the Western alliance in the moment we need it the most. We have to be very careful, therefore, not to advocate a solution that not everyone wants and that not every nation can accept.
The United States and “Values”
A Republican foreign policy has to recognize that there are limits to our domestic consensus, in particular on values. The term itself— “values”—is vague and can be filled with any meaning; every state or nation has values, after all, even though these values are not morally equivalent. And within the United States we have deep disagreements on the substance to put into this term. For instance, we disagree on fundamental questions of life, marriage, and death. We can discuss them as citizens within an ordered republic, seeking to win politically in order to advance the apparently inexorable march of progressive rights or to protect the immutable truths of human life. But we do an enormous disservice when we end these disagreements at water’s edge and usually accept as the preferred option a very progressive and activist foreign policy driven by an expansive view of rights.
Pushing such progressive values abroad does a great disservice to our national security. It turns our allies and other states against us, opening windows of opportunity for our rivals. And it severs U.S. foreign policy from the support of a large, if not the largest, segment of the American electorate, weakening the long-term sustainability of the strategy and, most importantly, putting in question its legitimacy. A conservative foreign policy, in other words, has to reflect the limits of what we, as a nation, agree upon and not promote abroad what we, as a polity, have not decided internally as true and lasting.
Moreover, the limits of what is desirable to promote abroad are drawn by truth, elucidated by reason, and inlayed in tradition. There is nothing conservative in promoting a wholesale reengineering of society abroad as well as at home by undermining the key institutions that underwrite political order. Political order is not kept by a law or a constitution, however important they are. It arises slowly from within the nation, united and ordered by its foundational institutions—family, friends, churches. To redefine family and marriage as the satisfaction of self-preferences—a flagship objective of the progressive Left, both in the United States and abroad—is a recipe for large-scale geopolitical instability and a goal that is antithetical to U.S. interests.
None of this means that the United States should withdraw from the world—or, in more fashionable parlance, exercise “restraint” and pursue “offshore balancing.” To the contrary, U.S. presence in Eurasia is indispensable to keep our rivals in check and sustain our security. And we should continue to advocate for unalienable rights, because the right to life is fundamental. Nobody deserves to be killed by a tyrannical regime, tortured by a psychopathic leader, or eliminated simply because they are deemed to be undesirable at any stage of human life. Similarly, the continued deportations and imprisonment of Uighurs by the Chinese regime or the beatings of peaceful protesters in Moscow or Hong Kong are clear violations of liberty. We should condemn them and impose costs on these brutal regimes.
But let’s not confuse our respect for life and love of liberty with “progressive values,” which are not universally appealing and whose infinite and elastic meaning defined by individual preferences weaken our reputation and undermine our national security.