Foreign Policy Blogs

No such thing as a Foreign Policy 101 …

Despite knee-jerk reactions from pundits and politicians (on both sides of the aisle) that would suggest easy solutions to foreign policy issues, any serious question in foreign policy requires a bit more thought and consideration than we see from a typical sound bite or tweet.  By definition, foreign policy issues impact numerous players and have various combinations and permutations of outcomes.  Take for example, the murder of journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. It seems clear from almost all accounts that Mr. Khasshoggi was murdered in what appears to be a savage and ruthless fashion, all for speaking out about a ruling class that he opposed.  And, while it is yet unproven whether or not members of the royal family were directly involved in the planning of this despicable act, eighteen Saudi nationals, including senior military officials, have been identified as being directly involved.

So, what would be the appropriate foreign policy response from the United States?  A knee jerk reaction might be to suspend trade with the Saudi government.  Maybe pull out of the arms deal with the Saudis where they agreed to purchase $110 billion of arms immediately and $350 billion over ten years.  Let’s think this through a bit.  If the United States pulled out of the arms deal, Russia and China would likely be more than happy to fill that void with the end result still being that the Saudis get their military equipment but the United States contractors lose the business and American citizens lose jobs.  But this is perhaps a bit short sighted and maybe we should consider the longer-term implications and ramifications.  Journalists are murdered in numerous countries around the world every day, much for the same reason Mr. Khashoggi was likely murdered.  Should the United States refrain from doing business with all such countries?  How about countries that have clear human rights violations … should we stop trading with them, including Russia and China …. hmm that would have interesting consequences.

On the other hand, it would seem at odds with America’s values as the world’s oldest democracy to allow for the suppression of speech and state-inflicted violence against journalists by close allies. American presidents have, in the not so distant past, promised to “end tyranny in the world” and force a choice, “between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right.” In light of this, to ignore the actions taken by the Saudi government would ring with hypocrisy. The United States should be able to use its support for Liberal values and institutions as an instrument of soft power around the world, but if our country continues to turn a blind eye when strategic allies violate those values that influence will be diminished. Perhaps we should be more careful choosing our partners in the first place…

Regardless of the personal position we may hold, it is clear that these sorts of events deserve more than snap reactions. Perhaps events such as this require thoughtful, bipartisan analysis evaluating the immediate and longer-term consequences of our actions.  Perhaps this foreign policy stuff isn’t so easy after all.  If only everything was as easy as dealing with some large number of people from various countries all showing up on our southern border at the same time seeking asylum.

Both the matter of Mr. Khasshoggi’s murder and the migration of thousands of people from America’s southern neighbors will paint the way people around the worldview the United States. Does our nation stand by its foundational values at the cost of strategic and material advantage, or should we prioritize a hard strategy calculus that puts our principles to the side for the sake of achieving our national goals? These questions have been raging in foreign affairs circles for decades, and America’s answer has varied dramatically depending on the political fashion of the moment and the severity of the stakes.

All of this goes to say that conducting foreign affairs is an exercise in trade-offs. We must find the appropriate balance between endorsing American values abroad and ensuring that our partnerships have meaningful strategic benefits for our nation. The world is simply too complex to make decisions based on any single datapoint or in light of any singular perspective.

Written by Peter Scaturro, Director of Studies at the Foreign Policy Association