Dhaka Courier

Values, or their absence, in foreign policy

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Krishnan Sreinivasan Photo: UNB

What are values? They are principles or standards of behaviour by which good and bad, right and wrong, may be assessed. Inherited traditional values are a common feature among individuals, and common behaviour derives from a shared culture.

Values of course can vary depending on generation, class, education, origin, tradition and modernity, and they provide the motivation to influence outcomes both in the minds of people and governments. Although some values are shared across cultures, it is the contrast of values in different societies that accounts for many of the misunderstandings and misperceptions between countries.

Leaders generally avoid talking about the value basis of their domestic policies, unless they are forced to, whereas they assert that their foreign policies embody national and/or universal principles. So we find that values in domestic policy are far less enunciated than in foreign policy, being taken for granted, and regarded as something obvious. Domestic values, where they exist at all, seem only articulated when they are under threat, at which times they tend to be forcefully restated. This is taking place for example  in India now, in the ongoing debate on secularism, liberalism and Hindutva; the ideological dispute about what constitutes an open, liberal, representative democracy, affirmation of diversities and the requirements of national unity.

In India where basic values are seen as being under threat by both sides of the debate, the result is in calls by the ruling authorities and opposition to forcefully state that their values are time honoured; for the ruling BJP, the mother cow, Hindutva, Akhand Bharat, the exceptionality; with the opponents stressing secularism, equal rights, social harmony and rule of law. The curiosity is that both parties to the debate invoke time-honoured, centuries old practices, spirituality if not explicit religion, as the basis for values, though they rely on 20th century ideologues for their specific viewpoints.

A discussion on domestic values is also taking place in the UKand USA at present, and also in all countries when a dark horse politician, previously unknown or with little political apprenticeship, springs into power, as in America, France or Ukraine or Brazil. In USA, under Donald Trump, traditional American values are seen as being under threat by his opponents, including the sentiments of the National Anthem and the Statue of Liberty.Germany stresses values such as the acceptance of refugees, because at least in part of its sense of penitence for the herrenfolk or superior race doctrine of the Nazi period, but the acceptance of refugees, economic migrants and asylum seekers is now widely unpopular in most other parts of the developed world.

Can different values in foreign policy be congruent when There is no universal seed-bed from which values germinate? Some countries derive them from foundational charters; others from inherited codes of behaviour, still others from religious sources, and nearly everyone from an admixture of all the above. Not all countries seek to propagate their values beyond their territorial boundaries, but every country firmly believes that its values have ethical standing.

Of the Western countries, France and USA engage in vigorous values rhetoric more than other nations, regarding themselves as the springboard for universal values based on the individual. The French Republic defined itself from the 1789 revolution in terms of the Rights of Man, and what today we call secularism. Similarly, US identity is defined in terms of the 1776 Declaration of Independence and the Founding Fathers – hence the untouchable article entitling the American citizen to carry arms. If a truth is held to be self-evident, as in the Declaration’s second paragraph, then it is obviously universal.

Elsewhere, values are deeply embedded in local history and political culture. In foreign policy, countries are obliged to articulate their values in contrast with other countries, and Values influence foreign policy especially when a country is strong enough to project power or influence. Where countries have no foundation in national power, their values will not be taken seriously. Soft power can only sustain values up to a point, and one nation’s values are only meaningful when they are recognised as such by other countries.

Robert Kaplan in his introduction to this book Values in Foreign Policy that I published last year believes that for small and weak states, they can afford the luxury only of one value, which is to survive; and for all the other countries, a successful foreign policy cannot be implemented without being supported by values.

Values that seem useful only for one country’s particular interests could jeopardize its relations with other countries which do not respect those interests. It is important therefore to recognize that values can lead either to agreement or to discord with others.

Many problems in international relations arise because the stories on each side of a border cannot be reconciled. This is a consequence of nationalism. It is true that all nations generally pursue the same basic goals – namely, the welfare and security of their populations – but languages, political cultures and social customs differ and create obstacles to cooperation and well-meaning efforts getting ‘lost in translation.’

Values and ideologies have played an important role in international affairs. The Holy Roman Empire and the self-named Free World of the Cold War era, are historical examples of supra-national entities which invoked values rather than interests as the primary impulse behind their conduct. More recently, powerful countries such as the USA routinely cite the promotion of freedom and democracy in support of actions based plainly on their national interest.  Essentially, the real drivers are the advancement of economic or strategic advantage, no matter how the justifying narrative is couched.

And so it is hard to surpass Lord Palmerston’s famous dictum of 1848 – ‘we have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual and it is our duty to follow those interests.’

In exceptional cases, values are so deeply held that promoting them becomes a national interest by itself.  This presumably applies to the Holy See’s diplomacy, but it is hard frankly to cite other actual examples of this. Even Islamic Republics like Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Mauretania apparently do not place Islam at the centre of foreign policy priorities to the exclusion of their interests. President Erdogan of secular Turkey said last week it was turkey’s responsibility to provide assistance to Muslims no matter where they are. But Turkey’s interventions have killed many Muslims in Syria, Libya and Kurdistan.

Therefore, most of the time our knowledge of the national interest of countries is all we need to understand why they act in a certain way. We find that values, ethical or moral principles and ideologies are usually not central to foreign policy decisions, giving way to the mix of national character along with security and foreign policy doctrines.  Since self-interest is the very definition of statehood, the more important the issue, the more the perceived national interest plays a role.

The debate between idealists and realists, universalists and particularists, in the study of international affairs is not new, and nor is it about to end. The former stress the indispensability of values and principles that must govern relations among nations in an ideal world, whereas the latter believe that national interest alone should be the driver for a state’s behaviour towards the rest of the planet.

Actually, neither camp has a monopoly on wisdom. A path paved solely by values or by naked self-interest is often not feasible to walk on. An individual needs both values and the capacity to identify and pursue interests, within the framework of social and community norms and laws, to secure happiness and harness his/her potential. That is also what states basically do in the international community.

We live in an increasingly globalised world; most intractable problems confronting humanity are no respecters of boundaries, which they cross with the ease of a mosquito or the CoronaVirus. It follows therefore that we need a new universalism, shared principles of a common humanity, that will somehow allow us to prioritise our universal and international interest over the parochial and national interests that divide us.

So we must think about resolving – or at least managing – the problems, whether real or imagined, that arise from conflicting values, problems that divide rather than unite humanity. For this we need to understand those whose historical experience, world view and cultural assumptions are different from our own and create obstacles to harmonious relations.

In this book Values in Foreign Policy the tension between values and interests is covered with reference to some leading countries today. The work explores the effect of the European Enlightenment, colonialism, modernity and post-modernity in determining contemporary value systems which are often uncomfortable in their interface with each other. Written by 18 academic s and professionals  in the field of foreign relations, many believe this book to be the closest examination yet made of the impulses which drive the foreign policies of some of the world’s representative countries, touching on the legacies of religion, civilization, culture and history.

Every important nation professes that its foreign policy follows an estimable and unique code of values, but common sense also tells us every country is inevitably faced with the compulsion to constantly adjust those values to the realities of politics and circumstances, in other words, the competing values of other countries that it encounters.

The Americans talk loudly and endlessly about their fundamental values. The Europeans, other than the Nordic states and the French, rather less so, and the Asian leaders after Nehru, hardly at all. Why is that?

Is it a question of the West against the Rest?

The Colonial Experience

One context of course is colonialism. Western liberalism had 3 or 4 centuries of aberration during the imperial period, which has ended within the living memory of most people in this room, when the West had control over power, concepts and values. If Jews are marked by memories of the holocaust, and South Africa by apartheid and racial discrimination, Asian nationalism is equally imprinted by the history of colonial oppression.

The overhang of imperialism affects the Asian perception of western liberal values because so many western countries were involved in the colonial enterprise of opening up of Third World markets. This historical experience leads Asians to consider the advocacy of universal values with understandable scepticism though the West has long believed that international cooperation can only take place under the auspices of a western liberal democratic model. As Francis Fukuyama proclaimed, liberal democracy is the final destination for human evolution.

State sovereignty

Whereas western liberals prioritise the individual over the nation and Europe has even moved to a confederation transcending national borders, Asians hold firmly to Art 2 of the UN charter in regard to the sanctity of state sovereignty. Regime change and colour revolutions are unacceptable to the Rest whereas for the West, especially the USA, the overseas priority is the pursuit of what the sixth president John Quincy Adams said:  “America… goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy; she is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.” Robert Kaplan in this book suggests that when America ceases to endorse its values of free trade and democracy, it will inevitably decline as a world power. The Washington Post on January 15 last year put it rather condescendingly: “Nations, like children, crave predictability. They need to know the rules. The United States is like a parent. Other countries look to it for guidance and to enforce the rules.”  This seems very much the attitude of the current White House towards other counties.

Nevertheless, and some might say, inevitably, Western interventions after 1990 to export values and political systems in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, Libya and Kosovo, have undermined their validity, and humanitarian interventions became viewed as establishing unofficial, and eventually failed, protectorates. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s bewailing that under Trump, the USA could not be relied upon to “impose order” leads to the obvious question, whose order?

[Is it the order of a country with economic sanctions against 30 countries, military and intelligence presence in 150 countries, and 800 bases located in 70 nations?]

Religion and secularism

The West believes in the sanctity of individual rights, personal freedom and free speech over restraint, and reason over religion. Western values, ever since the French Revolution, have been secularised, meaning that religion plays no part in policy. President Macron last week said: ‘There is no law against blasphemy. We have the right to blaspheme, criticise and caricature religions.’ By contrast, Asian countries have a strong and abiding sense of religion, or rather, the civilizational impulses flowing from religious or spiritual tradition.

Therefore the secular liberalism of the West often seems to Asians to be opposed to, or neglectful of, faith. A replay of Charlie Hebdo or Pussy Riot, that is, the wilful sacrilege and the mocking of religious icons, are not to be countenanced, or regarded as acceptable, in the non-West.

Universal Norms and Standards

The unequal cultural factor is hard to eliminate. Non-western countries, due to tradition, history and culture, do not necessarily share every value promoted as liberal and universal by the West. Many of the West’s standards and norms are actually viewed by the Rest as non-tariff barriers, disguised attempts to protect markets and high cost manufactures.

Liberal values are a legitimising pillar of western foreign policy.  The West presents itself as norm-observing and norm-setting, emphasising legal and institutional procedures. No one in the 16th to 20th centuries was trying, or for that matter, able, to check the rise of US and Europe, and the power of the marketplaces made access to them conditional on acceptance of their values and norms.

Keep in mind that 80% of the standards of international trade and global markets have been initiated by the West: ‘The core of Eurocentrism’ wrote the Chinese political analyst Wang Hui, was in establishing rules according to the western interest and then universalising them.’

Modernity

According to Partha Chatterjee, the co-founder of subaltern history,

‘The forms of modernity will have to vary between different countries depending on specific circumstances and social practices. Asians will forever remain consumers of universal modernity, never would be taken seriously as its producers. Ours is the modernity of the once-colonised.’

Each of us indeed has a different conception of modernity. As Bruno Macaes, the former Portuguese minister, writes in the book, we are all modern now.

But there is tension between liberal universal values and local interpretations of universality, between the post-modern West and pre-modern Rest. But let us never forget that Confucianism, Buddhism and Islam were also considered universal in their time. The inherited assumptions of a backward Rest and a progressive West now have less purchase, and the rise of China is largely responsible for that change. It will not be as easy for the ‘half-way liberal societies’ as Jurgen Habermas called the West, to set the world agenda now as it was 80 years ago.

The Individual and society

The values handed down through successive revolutions in the West, the English, American, French and Russian, laid down objectives for fulfilling the goal of liberty for the individual, whatever the later distortions of the ideals may have been.

By contrast, there is nothing clearly definable as Asian values. Asia is characterized more by political, religious, economic, cultural and ethnic diversity than homogeneity, and the concept of Asian unity does not resonate politically in all parts of our continent. Given the differences between West Asia, South Asia, China and Japan, there can be no ‘Asian way’ other than emphasis on modernization and sovereignty, non-interference, top-down benevolent state philosophy and communitarian values, which posit that society is a collective value system, placing national above individual interests. There is little core belief in the separation of powers or checks and balances, though nearly all Asian countries command a high level of public political participation.

Because of a multiplicity of religions and philosophical traditions, values are national rather than continental, but as a generalisation, there is in Asia a sense of identity from civilisation rather than the state; a work and savings ethic, a family-oriented community, emphasis on education which takes a high proportion of family disposable income, respect for age and hierarchy, the primacy of society over the individual, and the importance to avoid loss of face. Perhaps we should more properly call them virtues rather than values.

The important distinction is that Asia does not, at least not yet, seek to articulate any universal values or to prescribe and propagate them outside national borders.

Many Civilisations

Liberalism, republicanism, socialism, nationalism, communism, human rights and multilateralism were all inherited by us in the Rest as foundational ideas from the West, which were exported to all corners of the globe on the backs of imperialism. Because recent history is all about the rise of the western world, there is inherent resistance to the possibility that other civilizational values might exist, and so traditional ways of thinking are under pressure.

There cannot be equal reciprocity when the West insists on the universality of its standards. International law and rules- based procedures cannot be grounded without genuine multilateralism or the logic of hard power. The declining influence of the West is seen in European Union’s foundational goals of peaceful settlement of disputes and free and equal trade being currently at variance with the doctrines of Donald Trump’s America First. In an increasingly non-western world it is must be an illusion to claim centrality for 12% of the world population.

The Asian focus is on a multipolar world order with the modernisation path taking nations to different destinations. Globalisation will not make political systems more liberal or democratic, and few of us can believe in any universal political convergence overcoming national interest. Democracy has its own ethnic and cultural characteristics: a more democratic China may be more aggressive, a more Buddhist Myanmar or Sri Lanka may be more intolerant. Free elections can and do result in anti-establishment populist-nationalist leaders.

In future we may have a world where borders become increasingly diffuse like the European Union, but cultural and civilisational differences remain, creating ‘a permanently unstable compound of heterogeneous elements.’

This is exactly what urges us, compels us, to a better understanding of the values that motivate foreign policy.

Overview

In closing, I need to convey a few thoughts cherry picked from the book Values in Foreign policy.

Britain, never being invaded since 1066, along with Magna Carta and the Empire on which the Sun never set and the Battle of Britain gave the British Isles an innate sense of exclusiveness and exceptionalism. ‘Fog in the Channel, the Continent isolated’ is an emblematic weather forecast that perfectly sums up the go-it-alone and British Bulldog spirit. With this background of British values, Brexit hardly comes as a surprise.

America First is not new and goes back to Jefferson’s time. What is new is Trump not referencing American values in pursuing his foreign policy of leverage, bilateralism and the Art of the deal, both with allies and adversaries.

While values would by definition appear to be permanent, Japanese and German values took a U-turn after World War ll, with tactical compromises by making modesty and non-assertion new values in order to become acceptable to international society.  For example, Germany accepts that German is not the main language in the EU although the majority speak it; gone are the flashy military uniforms of the Nazi period. In Japan, the emperor’s image remains supreme but Bushido and Shintoism, both associated with pre war Japan, have been given up. Japan’s new restraint has paradoxically only underlined its uniqueness as the only country that has suffered nuclear attack.

Europe promotes liberal values abroad more than it practises them at home, using protection and non tariff barriers. Russian post-Soviet values under Mr Putin have taken on the role of guardian of language, overseas communities like those in E Ukraine, Crimea, Georgia and E Moldova, the Russian Orthodox Church and officially sponsored history.

In Muslim West Asian countries foreign policy is religion-sensitive, realpolitik packaged in the language of political Islam, though this might imply positioning rather than subscribing. Islam is a legitimising instrument of foreign policy. Indonesia the biggest Muslim country, has attempted to use Islamic soft power in Myanmar, Afghanistan, Philippines, and Iran-Saudi Arabia relations, but it has to be said, with little positive result.

South Korea, invaded 992 times, sees itself as a middle power in a 3-way balance between the USA, China and Japan. Survival is its objective and its foreign policy values are consequently only clichés; doing good to the world, promoting the national interest, contributing to humanity.

China entertains no doubts at all about its centrality in world affairs, and it cannot be expected to accept western norms.

India

Finally, you may wish to know what the chapter on Indian values in foreign policy has to say. To very briefly summarize its conclusions, at the time of independence, Indian foreign policy then directed by Jawaharlal Nehru was  based on principles derived from Buddhist and Hindu religious traditions, the world view of Swami Vivekanando, the struggle by colonized countries against imperialism and racialism, a sentiment towards Asian unity, and the legacy of Gandhi’s non-violent freedom movement. These principles, advanced in a rhetoric that presumed high morality and universalism, quickly foundered against the harsh realities of government responsibilities, especially the tensions with Pakistan and China. After Nehru’s death, opportunism as opposed to idealism, was practised by his Congress successors.

Vasudaiva Kutumbakan, the world is one family, has been frequently invoked through the decades, but many actions belie that belief, whether in questions of citizenship that have implications for foreign countries, or withdrawal from major trade facilitation arrangements like the RCEP.

An ingrained self-belief as an international paradigm and assertion of the moral high ground has existed since Indian independence. Now added to the exclusivist nature of Hindutva, this posture makes India’s closer integration in a globalizing world much more problematic.

Now to my last word.

Ideally, we should seek congruence between different value systems to forge a harmonious world based on common factors like tolerance, equal rights and opportunities. The difficulty is that societies cherish different views on theologies, epistemics and vocabularies, which makes this prospect, for the time being at least, unrealistic and unattainable.

Thank you very much indeed for your great patience.

  • Krishnan Sreinivasan
  • Values, or their absence, in foreign policy
  • Vol 36
  • Cosmos Dialogue
  • Issue 36
  • DhakaCourier

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