A consistent point of contention in the debate over American foreign policy has to do with the respective roles of American interests and American values. On the center-left in the United States, it’s common practice simply to assert that American interests and values are, if not one and the same, at least in substantial accord. This is also a view significantly held on the center-right. But it has come under challenge in recent times by those on the right who are seeking to clarify and simplify matters by chucking values (viewed as sentimental self-indulgences) out of the debate in favor of strict calculations of national interest. In dueling manifestos released over the past year and a half, “national conservatives” and “freedom conservatives” have laid out contrasting visions for the future of the United States. But though they differ in many ways, both place the advancement of U.S. national interests as the top American priority in its relations with the rest of the world.
Now, the national interest is, of course, something every state pursues by definition. But the course of global events sometimes imposes choices on countries with an inescapable moral or values component—choices that have no less urgency than questions of national interest. One such event was the unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Another was the Hamas massacre of civilians in Israel on October 7. In both cases, opposing sets of values were clearly on display. One set seeks the obliteration of an enemy and is more than willing to attack civilians in pursuit of that end. The other seeks an end to such wanton aggression. Those not directly involved in these conflicts are forced to decide whether to take a side, and if so, which one. This is a values question as much as a question of national interest. Opinion polls show that Americans support Ukraine and Israel rather than Russia and Hamas. Moreover, the situations of Ukraine and Israel, as victims of barbarous attacks, more closely align with American sympathies than those of Russia and Hamas as perpetrators. The question of what practical policy choices and real-world involvement the country should engage in when it comes to these matters is one thing. But the values choices Americans have made—and not just Americans—are inescapably part of the calculation.
Even when we think about American interests, the modifier “American” carries a lot more weight than it would in any other case where we’re simply describing a place on a map. Yes, American interests should be framed around the country to which the interests belong, namely, the United States. But more than just a geographical or sovereign tag, “American” also refers to a set of values that shape what American interests are and how to pursue them.
Contrary to what one typically hears from today’s self-styled “realists,” recognizing both the centrality and usefulness of values in American foreign policy is in no way a new thing, or a post-9/11 fantasy, or confined to starry-eyed liberal internationalists. The great classical realist Hans Morgenthau, who died in 1980, believed that national interests needed to connect to a national purpose and stated that a nation should “pursue its interests for the sake of a transcendent purpose.” Even Morgenthau’s most famous disciple, the realpolitik master Henry Kissinger, closed his 1994 masterwork, Diplomacy, by making the case—surprising, coming from him—that American foreign policy needed to remain grounded in national values and ideals. Kissinger declared that America “must not abandon the ideals which have accounted for its greatness” and that “for America, any association with Realpolitik must take into account the core values of the first society in history to have been explicitly created in the name of liberty.”
For these and others like them, it never was the case that values had no place in American foreign policy. Indeed, as these examples suggest, they believed values were foundational. Rather, the complication involves what our “values” are and, in a world with finite resources and capabilities, how far we can go in trying to spread them to other places and how to weigh that effort against competing priorities. While we may (and do) dispute how policymakers come down on these questions in particular instances, any attempt to avoid or evade these essential questions is preposterous. We can’t decide what to do without thinking about what we should do, and the values we hold will by definition figure in this task.
So what, then, are the values that the modifier “American” implies? Or to borrow from Morgenthau, what is that “American purpose” to which our interests should be connected? While Morgenthau suggested “equality in freedom,” the truth is that we should look to an even more fundamental element from which equality and freedom both spring—and that is, simply, human dignity. At our nation’s very beginning, the Founding Fathers articulated in the Declaration of Independence what would become our nation’s core value proposition: that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” By this, the Founders were expressing the (quite literally) revolutionary idea that each person has an intrinsic dignity, something given to them “by their Creator” rather than another human, and therefore a quality inherent to their very being.
Because this dignity is not bestowed by any other person, it cannot be taken away by any other person. In the view of the Declaration, it belongs inherently and equally to all as a gift from God. Many secular accounts of equal dignity belonging to all human beings have also been proffered over the years, offering those who prefer one a this-worldly ground for ideas about rights. Whether God-given or otherwise, from this equal dignity flows to each person a set of “unalienable rights,” at the core of which are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Rather than the state being the force that gives worth and meaning to each person, it is instead the individual that gives purpose to the government, which is here to protect those unalienable rights owed to each because of their equal dignity.
It is particularly telling that the Founders chose to start with this values proposition, and that only after establishing it did they move on to discussions of issues more commonly associated with core interests. Far from seeing values as a liability or an afterthought, our Founders rightly understood that values served as our greatest strength, and that our interests, both personal and political, flow from them, not the other way around.
In doing so, the Founders illuminated a profound but underappreciated truth—that national interests are intricately intertwined with national values. It is not, then, just the United States that must grapple with questions of values. It is that every nation—and every non-state actor with political aspirations—must do so as well. Each such state or actor must define its interests and the methods through which it chooses to pursue them in the context of some values framework. The inclination of many in the foreign-policy establishment to bypass this central fact creates the unfortunate tendency to assume a “moral equivalence” in the pursuit of national interests. They seem to believe that each country is just doing what every other country is doing.
The truth is, not every nation’s values, and thus the interests it chooses to pursue, are of equal moral standing. Some are better than others. While it is not unique to the United States for national values to affect national interests, what is uniquely (or at least distinctively) American is to have the values framework grounded so definitively in the principle of human dignity. And this very particular American values framework is in fact a superior one compared with the values frameworks held by such threatening geopolitical competitors as China, Russia, Iran, and Hamas.
Take for example three principles commonly associated with core national interests—security, freedom, and prosperity, the protection of which are core responsibilities of the state. These principles correspond at the state level to the Declaration’s enumeration of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as rights belonging to individuals.
At an abstract level, all states pursue security, freedom, and prosperity. But what Americans mean by security, freedom, and prosperity is very different from what China’s Xi and Russia’s Putin mean. “Security,” for example, can mean merely the security from the “state of nature” that Hobbes found in a Leviathan state. Or it can mean the security of the citizens of a state against invaders through a strong military capable of deterring or defeating an invader. Security in either or both of these senses is something Putin or Xi would have no difficulty embracing. But security in the sense of a set of rights that inhere in the person and that the state is bound to intervene to protect when someone seeks to violate them—that indeed, the purpose of the state is to protect the security of individuals in exactly this sense—takes us to a richer place, one where Xi and Putin cannot go.
Similarly, “freedom,” which, in international-relation terms, means that a state should be able to pursue its own course without interference in its internal affairs from others. This is a matter of “sovereign right,” and Xi and Putin claim to be leading defenders of this aspect of statehood against meddlesome outsiders. Freedom in this sense is not just a matter of principle; it requires a nation to possess the strength that will prevent outsiders from interfering. The United States would agree. But though we have here reached the limit of what Putin and Xi mean by freedom, we have not exhausted its meaning to the United States as something to preserve. Once again, the United States values freedom as the condition of individual liberty Americans enjoy by right—and which the state has a constitutional obligation to protect. In Xi’s China, ethnic and religious minorities are rounded up and subjected to unthinkable atrocities. In Putin’s Russia, political opponents are poisoned with lethal nerve agents and its citizens are conscripted into a war of aggression. To Hamas, “freedom” appears to be impossible without the destruction of Israel and the elimination of Jews from the Middle East. While it is a truism that all states, including the United States, can improve on their human-rights records, it is simply true that some states have far more improving to do than others.
Even in the narrow sense of sovereign freedom, it is noteworthy that Russia and China demand it for themselves but deny it to their neighbors, whom they seek to dominate. But doesn’t the United States seek, as a global hegemonic power, to do the same, and not just by flexing its muscle, but by enticing others to embrace its values? Perhaps—but not all hegemonic powers have the same values. The substance of these rights regarding American values is distinctive. The United States is of the view that “freedom” is something other states should choose to protect and preserve among their own people, not only in the collective sense of freedom from dominance by others, but in the pursuit of individual liberty free of state control.
Finally, “prosperity.” That the United States, China, and Russia wish to be nationally prosperous is not in question—not least to pay for the security that protects their freedom, whether in a narrow sovereign sense or in the richer American sense. True, Putin has turned out to be rather self-destructive in this regard, inflicting economic misery not only on the mass of the Russian people but also on his “oligarch” elite through sanctions following the invasion of Ukraine. In China’s case, however, one can truly marvel at how much increased economic freedom over several decades has done to improve the lives of hundreds of millions of Chinese people (while disproportionately enriching a favored Chinese elite as well, to be sure). So it is that securing the ability to pursue “prosperity” is, once again, not merely a national aim but, aspirationally, also an individual endeavor.
We have entered a new era of great power competition and violent challenge, which once again is at its core a dispute between fundamentally incompatible values frameworks. Rather than seeking refuge in an abstract neutral standpoint that ignores major moral differences, conservatives should unashamedly make the case that American foreign policy should protect and advance American values, and that these are not the same values all other countries—particularly our chief competitors—seek to protect and advance. While the United States has been guilty at times of a flawed application of its values, the values of Xi, Putin, Iran’s leaders, and Hamas are simply fundamentally flawed.
We are better.
Photo: Sergey Savostyanov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
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