Foreign Policy Is a Sordid Business. Sorry.


Would you sit down to dinner with a mobster? We know Frank Sinatra did, but that was different. Most of us have scruples about mingling with crooks.

Nations are different, however. Our political leaders are obliged to rub shoulders with people who kill people, or at least order them to be killed — think­ of the evidence pointing to Russia’s Vladimir Putin. All nations make daily compromises, devil’s bargains, in the interests of commerce. The global system would lurch to a halt if everybody who buys stuff from a given state, or sells to it, required a certificate of moral probity.

The West faces special dilemmas today, however, as abuses of human rights become ever more blatant in many countries. The irresistible advance of liberal democracy, rashly prophesied by Francis Fukuyama a generation ago in his influential but mistaken treatise, “The End of History,” has been overtaken by an apparently relentless ascent of tyranny.

Meanwhile in Washington, a new administration has taken office with a pledge to replace the morality-free presidency of Donald Trump with a commitment to American values — freedom, justice, decency — both at home and abroad. The “woke” movement, which is exerting formidable influence globally and especially in the U.S., seeks to seize ethical high ground. Young Westerners assess many issues, both those of the now and the past, through prisms of race or gender. In truth, alas, human history is mostly a narrative of the strong oppressing the weak, heedless of sex or skin color.

What to do today about, for instance, Saudi Arabia? It is a key U.S. ally in the Middle East for countering Iran and attempting to stabilize Syria and Iraq. It is also an important market. Its ruling crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, is nonetheless one of the ugliest figures to ascend the summit of an oil state, which is saying something.

Nobody seriously doubts that MBS, as he is known, promoted the murder and dismemberment in Istanbul of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In November 2019, then-candidate Joe Biden adopted an unequivocal position in a presidential debate, saying about the Saudis: “I would make it very clear we were not going to, in fact, sell more weapons to them. We were going to, in fact, make them pay the price and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are. There is very little social redeeming in the present government in Saudi Arabia.”

The Saudis’ intervention in Yemen’s civil war has contributed to hundreds of thousands of deaths, and suffering for millions. At home, although MBS introduced token reforms of the status of women, he is a brutal despot, hostile to everything the U.S. professes to stand for, except perhaps Israel’s security.

The Biden administration has published the CIA report on the Khashoggi killing, and announced an interim freeze on arms sales to the Saudis. But it flinches from imposing personal sanctions on MBS and those around him in Riyadh. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said earlier this month that, instead of blacklisting the murderous ruler, the administration believes there are “more effective ways to make sure it doesn’t happen again and also to be able to leave room to work with the Saudis on areas where there is mutual agreement — where there is national interests for the United States.”

In other words, now that Biden faces realities of power, he is no longer so impatient to take up a sword of justice against MBS.

Neighboring Dubai has also been in the news lately, for having allegedly kidnapped and imprisoned a princess of the ruling house, apparently for no worse crime than wanting a life of her own. In the Gulf, #MeToo has yet to make much impact.

The British perhaps have worse problems than the U.S. in deciding how tough they can afford to talk to Gulf rulers. My nation’s principal arms manufacturer, BaE Systems Plc, would be in deep trouble if it lost the regional market for weapons and aircraft. This perhaps explains why the U.K. has thus far refused to join the U.S. to impose even a temporary arms embargo on Saudi.

I once had a conversation with a senior official of Britain’s Ministry of Defense, in which I argued the immorality of crowding the desert with vastly expensive weapons systems. He justified the policy with a frankness unusual among government officials, even in private: “We are creating out there the greatest junkyard of high technology the world has ever seen. It does no harm to anybody, and brings us a huge income stream. It is the most efficient means yet identified of recycling petrodollars. What’s your beef?”

His American, French and Israeli counterparts might add that if we refused to satisfy the huge demand, the Russians or Chinese would do so without blinking.

The Gulf States represent, of course, only one example of the difficulties of making foreign policy more virtuous. Dealing with Russia is a bitter experience for politicians and diplomats alike. Last month, when the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs visited Moscow, the Putin government humiliated him, dismissing with contempt efforts to raise human rights.

Putin knows that Germany, in particular, is committed to its huge gas pipeline project with Russia, Nordstream 2, no matter how many opposition leaders he imprisons. The EU’s personal sanctions against a handful of named Kremlin officials constitute only a feeble gesture. Putin’s most effective shield against foreign critics is European dependence on Russian gas.

China poses a towering dilemma. The EU and U.K. last week acted alongside the U.S. and Canada to impose personal sanctions on a group of Chinese officials said to direct the persecution of the Uyghur Muslim minority. But this response is only a fleabite.

Under the terms of the Joint Declaration that governed Britain’s 1997 withdrawal from Hong Kong, a British judge sits on a rotating basis on the former colony’s highest appellate court. Since Beijing has introduced draconian laws against protest and free speech, many people believe British judges should cease to collude in systemic abuses of justice. So far, however, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has not pulled the rug on the arrangement. Defenders of the status quo argue that, if British judges quit, the people of Hong Kong would be deprived of their last vestige of protection from the U.K.

More important, one suspects, is that British ministers are desperate to avoid an outright showdown with China; the trading relationship is critical. Sunday Times economics editor David Smith wrote last weekend, “About the daftest thing we could do, when it comes to trade, apart from the daft thing we have already done [Brexit], is cut ourselves off from the world’s second-biggest economy.”

Johnson strives to sidestep an outright choice between supporting the U.S. in a historic confrontation with China, and promoting Britain’s bilateral economic relationship. The leaders of other large nations share this attitude; German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government seeks to maintain “equidistance.” Their actions make it plain that they value business above principle.

They are also eager for closer trading ties with India. It is thus unlikely that they will speak out with anything like vigor over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s illiberal tendencies, his enactment of a citizenship law that discriminates against Muslims, his suppression of critical journalists and judges. 

A cynical historian might sigh that it was ever thus. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt generated lofty rhetoric about the World War II Grand Alliance, which obscured the repugnant reality that the Western powers relied on the tyranny of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin — who until 1942 had murdered far more people than Adolph Hitler — to do the heavy lifting for the destruction of Nazism.

For decades during the Cold War, the U.S. supported a Public Enemies list of Latin American dictators, simply because they opposed communism. In 1982, forces of the Argentine military junta seized the Falkland Islands, a British colony. In Washington, President Ronald Reagan’s administration was appalled by U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s decision to fight a war to expel the invaders. U.S. policymakers, with the notable exception of Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, feared that defeat might topple the right-wing military dictatorship. (Ironically, the Soviet Union, seeing a common enemy in Britain, backed the anticommunist Argentines.)

Those rulers in Buenos Aires had been responsible for arrests and secret murders of thousands of Argentine dissidents — the “Disappeared Ones.” Nonetheless, toward the end of the war, Reagan telephoned Thatcher to plead with her not to inflict absolute humiliation on the generals. Luckily for the Argentine people, she rebuffed him. Following British victory, the junta collapsed, and democracy was re-established. 

It is much easier to play tough with marginal powers such as Argentina than with the global giants. It is tough to set universal rules by which the guilty can be punished for illegalities. Which nation, for instance, do you suppose has conducted the most extra-judicial murders of its enemies abroad over the past generation? Russia? China?

There is strong evidence it is Israel. “Rise And Kill First,” a 2018 book written by Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, catalogues hundreds of assassinations of alleged Arab terrorists, carried out all over the Middle East.  

I do not here argue the merits or demerits of this policy, or to impute moral equivalency — merely to notice that the Russian Federation is not the only government reportedly to liquidate its enemies in foreign countries. Saudi Arabia’s MBS could well demand: What is the difference between what I do and what the Russians and Israelis do, except that they do it more often and their victims aren’t writers for the Washington Post? And what about all the Islamic State and Taliban leaders eliminated by U.S. drones?

I say again: These remarks are not intended to start a fight about which killings are justified, but to illustrate the problems facing the U.S. State Department, and its counterparts in other democracies, to reconcile foreign policy with any common code of international morality.

However many grandiloquent public denunciations of tyranny are made, most governments will content themselves with seeking to do bits of things right. On bribery, for instance.

Paul Collier, professor of development economics at Oxford University and a director of the International Growth Centre, is a fund of knowledge about the world’s less-advanced societies. He has authored several influential books cataloging proposals to promote democracy in fragile societies. Among the foremost, unsurprisingly, is for big corporations to stop bribing national leaders. China, with its Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, is especially popular with African dictators, because it doesn’t ask embarrassing questions about human rights, and Chinese firms look after the local people at the top.

By contrast, it must be right for the world’s leading democracies to refuse to follow Beijing’s example. It seems welcome that the U.S., Britain and several other advanced nations have forsworn overt bribery as a tool to secure large contracts; have indeed conducted high-profile corporate prosecutions of Airbus SE, Rolls-Royce Plc and others.

Realpolitik nonetheless keeps breaking through. Henry Kissinger has been one of our age’s most vigorous exponents of pragmatism, as President Richard Nixon’s national security adviser and secretary of state. In his 2014 book “World Order,” Kissinger wrote with skepticism about attempts to govern morally, those of the EU in particular:

Europe has set out to transcend the state and to craft a foreign policy based principally on soft power and humanitarian values. But it is doubtful that claims to legitimacy separated from any concept of strategy can sustain a world order. … A contemporary structure of international rules and norms, if it is to prove relevant, cannot merely be affirmed by joint declarations; it must be fostered as a matter of common conviction.

Kissinger took it for granted that, to get anything useful done in the world, two things are indispensable. First is American leadership; second come allies and partners. Trump rejected both these propositions. Biden asserts a commitment to them, but it is still unclear whether he has the will and the political heft to follow through on his foreign-policy hopes and promises.

Already, harsh realities are crowding the new administration. Iran, with which the U.S. hopes to resume dialogue about its nuclear program and disruptive role across the Middle East, remains intransigent. China and Russia make common cause against the West, in defiance as well as discourtesy. They are gambling that the rest of the world needs their markets more than it values the principles it professes, and they may be right.

Even if a reborn American government does business more politely than its predecessor, in our chaotic new multipolar world, it may need to take its friends where it can find them. This could include being obliged to treat Saudi Arabia’s MBS as if he was not one of the world’s mobsters.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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