In just a bit over 240 years, the United States has gone from a noble experiment in democracy to the dominant superpower on the globe, and as many are keen to tell you in modern America, the nation hasn’t achieved this level of success without getting its hands dirty. American history is ripe with things we got wrong, and today, that constant evolution of policy through popularity certainly results in more mistakes being made, ensuring the snarkier students in 101 level college courses will always be able to mount the now cliched argument about America’s villainous tyranny.
There’s some truth to that argument, of course: in some circumstances and from some perspectives, America truly has played the role of the villain — but the trap this sort of analysis sets is trying to view geopolitics through the black and white lens of “good guys and bad guys.” The truth of the matter is, analysis based on the good guy verse bad guy paradigm misses the point of foreign policy and defense entirely. While it benefits a nation to be seen as a good guy on the world’s stage diplomatically, the role actually offers very little in the way of stability or security. Hunting for black and white ideals in a complex and grey world may make for an interesting academic exercise, but ultimately the survival of a nation falls to greater concerns than subjective morality.
When it comes to international relations, the moral high ground may offer some public leverage, but regarding conflict, it provides little in the way of a superior firing position. This mentality, while troubling to those who prefer to view the world in terms of heroes and villains, has led the United States to take actions that it would deem inexcusable by other nations on multiple occasions. This “do as I say, not as I do” form of diplomacy raises difficult and warranted ethical questions about American foreign policy, certainly, but it’s difficult to dispute that even America’s forays into malign activities have brought about a mostly beneficial result for the American people — who live in one of the safest, most prosperous nations on earth. Some may lose sleep over the things America has done, but it is ethical concerns, not the sounds of conflict and unrest or pangs of hunger, which keep them awake. America. Then, has undoubtedly done things that could be seen objectively as wrong, but in the pursuit of an outcome, most would see as good (for the American people).
Those last four words, surrounded by parenthesis, serve as the basis of American foreign policy decisions, but not in the way we judge nation-level behavior. As a society, we tend to think of America’s actions in terms of how they affect the global populous (as a means to strive for objectivity). That divide between the standards employed in the decision-making process and the standards relied upon to judge a nation’s actions after the fact depicts in utter clarity the problem with our moral and ethical approach to foreign policy analysis. Our standards for judgment presuppose a world that was meant to be fair: a world where resources are not limited and where existential threats are underplayed because they feel unlikely
When Russia works to interfere with America’s democratic process, some grow angry at Russia for daring to do such a thing. Others, of course, point out that the United States is no stranger to election meddling and even forced regime change when it has benefited the nation. These people aren’t wrong about history, but in their hurry to condemn America’s actions in the past, they lose sight of the stakes. The argument that “we shouldn’t complain because we do it too” is an exercise in idealism rather than pragmatism.
As a young man, I certainly punched my fair share of people in the face — that doesn’t mean I’d sit back and allow someone to punch me now, simply because I set some sort of face punching precedent with my behavior. I don’t have to defend past fist fights or consider that, objectively, I might deserve to get hit — I simply defend myself. Geopolitics in conflict, likewise, isn’t about squaring any international debts or paying penance for the things you’ve done wrong; it’s about protecting yourself from threats.
National security isn’t about playing fair; it’s about maintaining the advantage, keeping your population safe, and often, avoiding open war by other means. Sometimes, those other means may be unsavory, but the truth is, the world is in a constant state of ideological conflict, and not everyone can win. Every country is forced, from time to time, to make compromises in the interest of its own safety and security, and while most nations today can take actions that benefit both their own populations and the world simultaneously, if a situation arises that forces a decision between one or the other, nations will always choose the well being of their citizenry over the security and prosperity of other nations. In the United States, we tend to think of this as a form of American exceptionalism, but that’s true only because we lack the perspective needed to see that every nation acts in its own best interest and America isn’t, in fact, an exception at all.
If there was only enough food left in your town to feed one family, there might be time for a debate about the morality of fighting over it to be had after the fact, but in the moment, what matters is feeding your kids. Likewise, when nations compete for resources, many objective moral implications must take a back seat to the reality that is resource scarcity and a population in need. War isn’t just what happens when diplomacy fails; it’s what happens when there’s no other (objectively immoral) means to the preferred end as well. However, an ethically questionable decision today that prevents a war next year won’t be judged on the deaths it may prevent, but rather on the lives it actually cost, and as a result, we often view what was the lesser of two potential evils without the breadth of scope required, and instead interpret it as simply evil.
America has the second largest stockpile of nuclear weapons on the planet but dedicates a great deal of effort to prevent other nations from acquiring them. America levied sanctions and expelled diplomats over Russia’s election interference, despite a history of election interference and even direct regime change in its own history books. America has the largest Navy on the planet but sees China’s rapidly expanding Navy as a serious threat. All of these and so many more facets of American foreign policy seem like double standards, and in all fairness, they truly are — but even the term “double standard” suggests we’re playing some sort of game with rules intended to keep things fair.
Fair works in board games, but when it comes to national security: there’s no prize for pursuing it. America’s long history of nefarious deeds on its own and foreign soil, sometimes with the greater good in mind and sometimes not, should serve as a lesson to the American people about the importance of not playing fair, lest we find ourselves added to that list of nations that allowed their futures to be dictated by foreign powers. That’s not an argument in favor of committing heinous acts, but rather a truly objective observation about the reality of conflict.
Foreign policy is the polite face we put on war between battles, but make no mistake about it, as long as power and resources are finite, conflict is a part of life — and playing fair is no guarantee of victory. Good and evil are constructs of analysis based on commonly accepted norms. Survival is far less nuanced.
Featured image: A ship-borne J-15 fighter jet prepares to land at the flight deck of the aircraft carrier Liaoning (Hull 16). A Chinese Navy flotilla including aircraft carrier Liaoning has conducted a series of exercises in the South China Sea since the grand naval parade last Thursday. | Chinese People’s Liberation Army, via China Military