For foreign-policy mavens, the primary race for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination hasn’t been especially edifying, mostly because the subject has received relatively little attention. Even so, the recent squabble over the candidates’ attitudes toward autocrats has been a new low. I refer, of course, to the charge that Bernie Sanders is an apologist for dictatorship because he told an interviewer that Fidel Castro’s Cuba had some genuine educational achievements, as well as the parallel attack on Michael Bloomberg for saying that China’s Xi Jinping was “not a dictator.” As Daniel Larison later noted, “[T]oo much of the foreign policy section was consumed by this ‘denounce a dictator’ exercise and many other issues were neglected as a result.”
I like liberal democracy as much as anyone, and I’m grateful that I live in a country where those values are still (mostly) respected. But this reflexive need to offer full-throated attacks on authoritarianism is symptomatic of a long-standing pathology in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy; namely, the tendency to see someone’s moral vision and commitments as the most important (and maybe the only) criterion by which their foreign-policy competence should be assessed. It is an enduring manifestation of what realists have long criticized as America’s “legalistic/moralistic approach” to foreign affairs, an approach that overlooks the political and moral complexities of statecraft and has consistently led policymakers astray.
Moral considerations are hardly irrelevant in the conduct of foreign policy, but the simplistic moral litmus test on view in the recent Democratic debate mostly reveals that the United States remains, as I wrote back in 2005, “a remarkably immature Great Power—one whose rhetoric is frequently at odds with the reality of its own conduct and one that often treats the management of foreign affairs as an adjunct to domestic politics.”
Why is a politician’s willingness to denounce dictators a poor litmus test for his or her fitness for office? For starters, it’s too easy: Anyone running for president knows that you’re not supposed to say too many nice things about foreign despots, and even Donald Trump offered only mild praise for people like Russia’s Vladimir Putin when he was on the campaign trail in 2016.
More importantly, no matter what a candidate says on the campaign trail, whoever gets elected is going to have to do business with a lot of autocrats (some of whom are pretty odious) and especially if they happen to be in charge of a powerful country. Back in 1992, for example, Bill Clinton attacked George H.W. Bush for being too tolerant of Chinese human rights abuses and said he’d get tough with Beijing; once in office, he found that hectoring China didn’t work very well, and he soon reversed course. The next president is going to talk with people like Putin, Xi, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and many, many more, and beginning the conversation by denouncing their immoral conduct won’t be the best way to advance U.S. interests or get them to improve their behavior even a little.
I’d take this insight a step further: In most cases, ostracizing autocrats or trying to freeze them out advances neither strategic nor moral objectives and may even be counterproductive. The failed U.S. embargo on Cuba is a clear case in point. The mighty United States refused to deal with Cuba for nearly half a century—solely to appease the Cuba lobby in Florida—yet this policy didn’t bring down the regime, didn’t help the Cuban people, and didn’t moderate Castro’s international conduct. One suspects a policy of engagement would have put Castro under more pressure over time, by allowing Cubans to see how much better life was elsewhere and by exposing the limitations of their own system. Similarly, not talking to countries like North Korea or Iran makes it harder to address the issues where interests conflict, which is why it makes sense to talk to them despite legitimate moral objections to these countries’ systems of rule.
Third, moral posturing of the sort on stage last week makes America look hypocritical. As everyone around the world knows, the United States has a long track record of supporting some pretty objectionable dictators, and it overthrew or undermined genuine and legitimate democrats on more than one occasion. Nor is U.S. behavior at home or abroad above reproach or consistent with the moral values to which Americans like to hold others.
Before some of you leap to Twitter to denounce what you just read, let me emphasize that I am not suggesting a moral equivalence between the United States and every autocrat who has ever ruled. I am merely pointing out that a tactic that might play on a debate stage—i.e., to accuse a political rival of being soft on dictators and insufficiently committed to America’s core political values—isn’t going to play very well abroad. Other nations already think the United States is remarkably hypocritical—and with good reason—and such antics are only likely to reinforce this view.
Unfortunately, the problem goes beyond the mudslinging of a contentious political campaign. As realists have warned for decades, America’s tendency to make morality the touchstone of its foreign policy isn’t just an occasional distraction; it is actively harmful to strategic and moral objectives alike.
One danger is utopianism, whereby the United States tries to rely on idealistic solutions that simply aren’t going to work. The Kellogg-Briand Pact is perhaps the best-known example of this kind of solution, but the tendency to see regime change and democracy promotion as the answer to numerous contemporary problems, including terrorism, is a close second. Liberal democracy has many virtues, but overzealous efforts to spread it abroad—either by peaceful or more forceful means—have a deeply disappointing track record. Insisting that other nations really ought to conform to our values may also lead us to neglect less idealistic outcomes that might still alleviate conflict and suffering in the short term.
Even worse, once we begin to view international politics and foreign policy as a morality play—with virtuous democrats on one side and evil despots on the other—the only logical solution to most global problems is to get rid of the latter. Once the troublemakers are gone, we tell ourselves, there simply won’t be any more trouble. At a minimum, this urge to do good by toppling wicked despots leads to hubristic debacles like the war in Iraq or the ill-fated intervention in Libya. At worst, it is a recipe for endless war to “eradicate evil” forever.
If simplistic moral litmus tests are not the answer, what is? A better approach was sketched many years ago, in Hans Morgenthau’s Scientific Man vs. Power Politics. Although Morgenthau is widely (and correctly) viewed as a central figure in the realist canon, he was also deeply concerned with moral issues and believed they could never be divorced from social and political life. Indeed, a central theme of this book is that all political action has moral consequences; there is no way to operate in the political world and keep entirely clean hands. (Similar themes run through the works of other realists, most notably the Christian realist Reinhold Niebuhr.)
For Morgenthau, therefore, there is an unavoidable tension between the moral universe of human beings and the real world where power politics prevails. Anyone who aspires to political leadership thus faces a very real burden. In his words, “To act successfully, that is, according to the rules of the political art, is political wisdom. To know with despair that the political act is inevitably evil, and to act nevertheless, is moral courage. To choose among several expedient actions the least evil one is moral judgment.”
Instead of asking for ritual denunciations of this despot or that dictatorship, therefore, the proper question to ask Sanders, Bloomberg, Elizabeth Warren, etc.—and Trump—is how they will weigh these unavoidable tensions when they are forced to deal with governments whose conduct and character differs substantially from American ideals. Does Sanders think Cuba’s legitimate educational accomplishments were possible only under a communist dictatorship? Are there any circumstances where he believes a country is better off under one-party rule? If not, are there conditions where he thinks the United States should use its power to advance purely moral ends? Similarly, instead of asking Bloomberg if Xi is a real dictator or not, a better question is what steps, if any, he would take to pressure China over moral issues and what those moral issues might be. Nor should Americans stop asking their current president why he seems to prefer autocrats to the leaders of other democracies and why his administration keeps taking steps right out of the authoritarian’s playbook.
In short, it is one thing to recognize the inescapable tension between our moral preferences and the realities of an imperfect world—and to do what we can to advance the former without sacrificing our security or making bad situations worse—and another thing to ignore moral considerations entirely (as Trump tends to do) or to reduce them to the shallow mudslinging and faux outrage of last week’s Democratic debate. The next time the remaining candidates are on stage, maybe someone will ask them how they would navigate some of the moral trade-offs and dilemmas that exist in the real world. For instance: How would they try to pressure China into halting the forced indoctrination of its Uighur Muslims? Would they be willing to extend diplomatic recognition to North Korea in exchange for progress on nuclear arms control? And so on. I don’t know about you, but I’d love to hear what they have to say.