Values and Foreign Policy

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Hilzoy and Robert Farley offer up what I would consider to be the standard philosopher’s rejoinder to Ezra Klein’s fatwa against “values” as a center of US foreign policy, namely that policy choices irreducibly implicate value decisions and allegedly value-free concepts like “the national interest” are, in fact, both contestable and, in practice, contested.

I think this is right, but I also think it misses the true force of Ezra’s point. The point isn’t, literally, that the problem is that we have “too much values” in our foreign policy and need to somehow wring it out with a judicious focus on consequences and pragmatism. The point, rather, is that our political debate has become unhealthily deductive — with more time and column-inches being spent on the part of the argument that goes “does policy X flow logically from value Y” than on the part that asks “if we do Y, what’s going to happen?”

Basically, an enormous amount of intellectual energy has been expended since 9/11 on the proposition that we can effectively outline policies for coping with problems emerging from the Muslim world without availing ourselves of rigorous empirical knowledge of the countries or people in question. This makes sense because the broad American elite basically had no knowledge of these issues. Insofar as the most important people were knowledgeable about any foreign places, those places tended to be in Eastern Europe or the Balkans. Even worse, the community of regional specialists on the Middle East and Persian Gulf regions tend to hold politically unacceptable opinions about the US-Israel relationship and, indeed, the general thrust of US policy in the area. Under the circumstances, the idea that better policy requires better reasoning about values has a natural appeal, but relatively little actual utility.

On the other hand, I do think it’s important for progressives to develop more effective public articulations of what it is we’re trying to say about US foreign policy, and I do think that communicating these ideas to a mass public requires this kind of flight into the ether of values. In that sense, I think Anne-Marie Slaughter’s (the nominal subject of this conversation) ability to link up specific policy ideas to values-stuff is actually extremely valuable.