contributor perspectives

Dec 17, 2014 | 09:00 GMT

6 mins read

Foreign Policy Amoralism

Chief Geopolitical Analyst, Stratfor
Robert D. Kaplan
Chief Geopolitical Analyst, Stratfor
A combined formation of aircraft from Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 5 and Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 9 pass in formation above the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74).
(Lt. Steve Smith/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)
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By Robert D. Kaplan

When we think seriously about foreign policy we think amorally. For foreign policy involves the battle of geographical space and power, played out over the millennia by states and empires in a world where there is no referee or night watchman in charge. The state is governed by law, but the world is anarchic — a realization made famous by the late academic theorist Kenneth N. Waltz of Columbia University.

In such a world, needs rather than wishes rule, and even a liberal power such as the United States is not exempt from the struggle for survival. Such a struggle means looking unsentimentally at the human condition, which, in turn, requires a good deal of unpleasantness. Boiled down to its essentials, here is the situation of the United States:

The United States dominates the Western Hemisphere and therefore has power to spare to affect the balance of power in the Eastern Hemisphere. It uses this power to secure the sea lines of communication and free access to hydrocarbons. In a word, the United States engages in the amoral struggle for power to defend a liberal international order. The end result is in a large sense moral, but the means, if not immoral, are often amoral — that is, they belong in a category separate from the one involving lofty principles.

For example, there is the Middle East, where the United States for decades during the Cold War and after supported dictatorial regimes. This was not necessarily moral, even though the passing of these regimes has in most cases led not to an improved quality of life for the inhabitants but to a worse one. Yet support for such regimes did indeed provide for regional stability, access to energy for the West and reliable sea lines of communication to and from the Middle East for both America and its allies. And this is not to mention the various peace treaties and disengagement accords that could only have been reached with strong Arab dictators.

There is nothing ironic or cynical about this. American presidents over the decades surely wanted the Middle East to be more democratic, but the needs of foreign policy outweighed their dreams.

In East Asia, the United States must support the military modernizations and buildups of former enemies Japan and Vietnam to balance against the rising power of China. Vietnam is not democratic, and Japan's democracy has featured veritable rule by the same party for decades. Vietnamese and Japanese military power could conceivably create problems for the United States in the future, especially given the rise of Japanese nationalism. But the needs of the moment, given China's very size and authoritarianism, demand these imperfect alliances.

A moral world is one in which perfection and black-and-white choices reign. A moral world in foreign policy is actually easy, and it will never exist. Meanwhile, we have only the real world of military powers competing in a state of anarchy, offering only difficult compromises that are more amoral than moral.

The United States can bring all the creative force of its diplomacy and intelligence services to bear in suppressing interreligious and intertribal violence in the Central African Republic and South Sudan. But it will probably not send in troops — no matter how bad the situation may get in the future — because these states simply are not strategically important, and America cannot afford to tie down ground forces in places where intractable problems may take years or longer to solve. Helping such places is certainly a good in and of itself, but it is not a need given the other responsibilities of the United States, whose prosperity and survival requires that its troops always be available for use elsewhere — in the Persian Gulf or the Korean Peninsula, for example.

In this world, to even contemplate humanitarian gestures is a luxury that has rarely existed in history, given the intense struggle for survival with which all powers, great and small, have been engaged. The fact that humanitarianism is now an established field of activity, with policy proponents and well-funded foundations involved — allowing people to make careers out of it — attests to the unprecedented material wealth and physical security that the states of the West have managed to acquire for themselves. It is only because the United States has performed so well in the amoral struggle for survival that there is room now for even the possibility of humanitarian interventions. And this successful amoral struggle for survival, remember, has been the result of toils of even the most embattled modern presidents — particularly those despised by the media.

In other words, a vast military armature has been built up over decades — from ballistic missiles to warships to hydrogen bombs — that proved crucial to a peaceful victory in the Cold War, and the result is a world where morality can be introduced to foreign policy to a degree unseen before. Humanitarianism would simply be impossible without the very blunt fact of American military power. For without that power, moral interventions could not even be contemplated, let alone argued for. And, once again, never forget that such power was accumulated amorally, as a survival need against geopolitical competitors. Power can be spent morally in humanitarian endeavors, but that very power can only be acquired amorally. Thus, continued humanitarianism requires the continued amoral acquisition and maintenance of American power.

Such an amoral acquisition of power has been supported every step of the way by the vast majority of the American citizenry under both Republican and Democratic administrations. Americans don't have hearts of stone. They are good people, free of the hatreds that have for so long defined Europe. Truly, these citizens are uncomfortable with human suffering in a place such as sub-Saharan Africa, even as they don't like the fact that the Middle East has been governed for so long by dictators. But again, these are wishes. The needs of the American people require the free flow of energy and available American troops that are not bogged down in places that do not overwhelmingly matter to their country's security. Americans supported the humanitarian interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s only because there were few if any casualties and there was a clear exit strategy. They also supported a humanitarian intervention in Somalia in the same decade, but only until 18 Americans were killed there. Then the public turned against the intervention. The Balkans and Somalia represented wishes only.

The 1990s were a decade of humanitarian interventions because the United States was a unipolar power at the end of the Cold War. A favorable geopolitical climate allowed for the luxury of those interventions. Sept. 11, 2001, still lay in the future, and China was only starting to build a great naval force. The extent to which future humanitarian interventions can take place will likewise depend upon a continued favorable geopolitical climate. And that climate can only be pursued amorally: by countering China, establishing a stable balance-of-fear in the Middle East and so forth.

Thus, to repeat, when we think seriously about foreign policy, we think amorally. And if we do that right, we should certainly have power to spare for various types of humanitarian interventions.

Robert D. Kaplan was Stratfor's Chief Geopolitical Analyst from March 2012 through December 2014. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C., and has been a foreign correspondent and contributing editor at The Atlantic, where his work has appeared for three decades. In 2009, he was appointed to the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board, which advised former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on key issues. Mr. Kaplan served on the board through 2011. From 2006 to 2008, he was the Class of 1960 Distinguished Visiting Professor in National Security at the U.S. Naval Academy.

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