Countries Don’t Have Friends; Just Interests

Michael Totten wrote that “Foreign Policy 101 dictates that you reward your friends and punish your enemies.” It’s a spectacularly dumb statement, reflective of neoconservative tribalism rather than sensible foreign policy. You can tell it’s of neocon provenance because if its crudeness and simplicity. It’s the kind of idiotic thinking that Cheney holds to. Larison easily explains why:

Whatever one thinks of Obama’s foreign policy, it’s not true that the conduct of foreign policy should be guided by the principle of “reward your friends and punish your enemies.” The priority should always be to secure the country’s just interests first, and that may sometimes require reaching agreements with antagonistic states and being at odds with allies and clients on certain issues. It is tempting but misguided to think of international relationships in terms of friendship. States can have productive and cooperative relations, and they can even be allies for many decades, but they aren’t ever really “friends.”

The famous quote from Lord Palmerston, along with many others, is more stringent still: “England has no eternal friends, England has no perpetual enemies, England has only eternal and perpetual interests”. That’s why I object to notions of an “unbreakable bond” between the US and Israel. George Washington, in the most prescient and emphatic repudiation of AIPAC and the Cuban Lobby ever delivered, explained why a long, long time ago:

Nothing is more essential, than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular Nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The Nation, which indulges towards another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its georgewashingtoninterest. Antipathy in one nation against another disposes each more readily to offer insult and injury, to lay hold of slight causes of umbrage, and to be haughty and intractable, when accidental or trifling occasions of dispute occur. Hence frequent collisions, obstinate, envenomed, and bloody contests. The Nation, prompted by ill-will and resentment, sometimes impels to war the Government, contrary to the best calculations of policy. The Government sometimes participates in the national propensity, and adopts through passion what reason would reject; at other times, it makes the animosity of the nation subservient to projects of hostility instigated by pride, ambition, and other sinister and pernicious motives. The peace often, sometimes perhaps the liberty, of Nations has been the victim.

So likewise, a passionate attachment of one Nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite Nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest, in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter, without adequate inducement or justification. It leads also to concessions to the favorite Nation of privileges denied to others, which is apt doubly to injure the Nation making the concessions; by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained; and by exciting jealousy, ill-will, and a disposition to retaliate, in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld. And it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens, (who devote themselves to the favorite nation,) facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country, without odium, sometimes even with popularity; gilding, with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good, the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation.

Millman agrees completely:

The whole paradigm of “reward and punish” is derived from the game theory strategy of “tit for tat” which, indeed, reliably produces the best results in simulations. But those simulations are one-dimensional. The real world isn’t.

India and the United States have common interests in fighting Islamist terrorism and in providing a strategic counterweight to China. But India has a fruitful relationship with Iran that they see no reason to sever. Should we “punish” them for that? How would we do that without also “punishing” them for being our allies against the Taliban? Should we have “punished” our ally, France, for not supporting our war in Iraq by not supporting their war in Libya? Or should we have supported our ally Britain for its staunch support in Iraq by joining the very same war against Libya? Should we have rewarded Russia for its support for our war in Afghanistan by dropping our support for Georgian membership in NATO? Or should we have rewarded Georgian support for the Iraq war by pushing harder for their membership in NATO?

Larison follows-up:

Offering reflexive support for clients and their goals may seem like the sort of thing that a reliable patron should do, but this requires one to forget that the relationship exists for the sake of advancing common interests rather than indulging clients in all of their preoccupations.