6.7.7 Foreign Policy

National politicians put most of their energy into domestic politics, reflecting the concerns of the populations they serve, but foreign policy sometimes takes centre-stage.  The previous two sections examined some aspects of foreign policy – international concerns about the environment (6.7.5) and policy towards developing countries (6.7.6) – but there are other matters of international security that can sometimes dominate the political agenda.

It is proposed here that the goals of foreign policy should be to maintain international peace, to have friendly relationships with other countries, and to facilitate trade for mutual advantage.  These are aims which benefit everybody (without considering the egos of national leaders).  The two world wars in the 20th century vividly illustrated the risks of free-for-all nationalism, and the 21st century has shown the limits of liberal interventionism with the examples of Afghanistan and Iraq fresh in people’s minds.

Rodric Braithwaite, a former British ambassador to Russia, made some wise observations about avoiding unnecessary interference in other countries’ affairs; in a Prospect article, Anyone for realpolitik?, he noted that:

“The end of the cold war was followed by a brief decade of euphoria. Our politicians talked of our moral duty to intervene in other people’s affairs to force them to behave properly.”

“…Of course, most of us remain deeply attached to the values of the liberal and secular Enlightenment. None of us want an unethical foreign policy. But much of the rest of the world does not agree that it is the west that decides what is valuable, what is liberal, what is ethical. They will not accept that it is we who define the rules of international behaviour to which it is their task merely to conform.”

America’s sense of triumph at having “won” the Cold War deluded it into the neoconservative belief that it had a recipe for governance that would benefit every country in the world, but other countries may believe passionately that their systems are better than western liberal democracy.  As described earlier, some one-party States can justify their systems of government with moral arguments ( Communism, Confucianism and theocracy can all convince people of their rightness.  And the image of western liberal democracy has been badly tarnished by the financial crisis of 2007-8, by gross financial inequality, by the treatment of black people in America and by President Trump refusing to hand over power peacefully after he lost an election – among other examples of political dysfunctionality.  It is therefore inappropriate for America to try to impose its values on other countries.

A peaceful world order is likely to be in every country’s interest, even though that sometimes requires governments to make concessions in order to reach agreement.  As Cicero said, “An unjust peace is better than a just war”.  Diplomacy can foster good relations and help to resolve problems before they become serious.  A co-operative approach might be hard to defend against other politicians, who might urge a more flamboyant policy of confrontation, but a good leader would explain why coercion doesn’t work.

Politicians can choose different styles for interactions with other countries, as described in the next five sub-sections:

They can seek national advantage by applying coercion (  A coercive foreign policy, as defined here, is one which tries to put pressure on other countries whilst staying within the bounds of international law; it is confrontational rather than co-operative.

They can respect other countries as having equal rights, competing fairly whilst supporting rules-based international governance (  A rules-based international order is one where countries co-operate to keep the peace, in accordance with predefined rules such as those defined in the United Nations Charter.

They can use ‘soft power’ to persuade other countries to support them (  Soft power, as defined by Joseph Nye, is based on attracting the respect and admiration of other countries to foster good relationships; they are then more likely to be co-operative (and persuasion is less costly than coercion).

Or they can make ‘realpolitik’ decisions to make pragmatic judgements about whether to use military force, for example, or what conditions they must accept to secure peace (  What is achievable by using military force is a subject for the next chapter – but the assessment of the political cost of doing so is a foreign policy question.

The most extreme foreign policy option is an attempt to change the regime of another country by using military force (  Forced regime change is unable to achieve political stability, comes at a high financial and human cost, and creates wider security problems – as shown recently in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Politicians can take the internal view of these options – calculating what would best increase their own domestic popularity – or, taking the broader view, they can assess what kind of world order would best suit their countries’ interests in the longer term.



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This is a current page, updated since publication of Patterns of Power Edition 3a.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/677b.htm