Liberal democracies such as the United States face an acute dilemma in the conduct of foreign relations. Although many states around the world are repressive or corrupt, U.S. national interests sometimes demand cooperation with such actors. During World War II, the United States even allied with Josef Stalin’s barbaric, totalitarian regime to defeat an especially dangerous adversary, Nazi Germany.
But such partnerships have the inherent danger of compromising, even badly undermining, America’s values of freedom and human rights—and sometimes America’s long‐term security as well. Close working relationships with autocratic regimes or political movements, therefore, should not be undertaken lightly. U.S. officials have had a less than stellar record of grappling with this dilemma, either during the Cold War or during the more recent campaign against radical Islamic terrorism.
For U.S. foreign policy to be both effective and reasonably consistent with American values, certain conditions have to be met.
Domestic support for U.S. foreign policy must not be needlessly undermined. Because most Americans believe in the professed values of this country, a foreign policy that ignores or violates those values is likely to lose the public’s allegiance sooner or later. That is what happened with the missions in Vietnam, Iraq and, more recently, Afghanistan. It is not merely that the ventures failed to achieve quick, decisive results—although that aspect clearly played a role—but also that the American people came to see their country as expending blood and treasure on behalf of sleazy regimes for goals unrelated to key U.S. interests. A disillusioned public turned against those missions, which then created or intensified bitter domestic divisions.
A similar dynamic occurred in response to calls for U.S. intervention to block leftist insurgencies in Central America against right‐wing governments in the 1980s. For a large number of Americans, it was not worth either the cost or the risk to prop up such political partners. Today, a majority of Americans say that they favor cutting U.S. foreign aid, especially to repressive, corrupt regimes in such places as Egypt, Pakistan and the states of Central Asia. To sustain adequate public support for security partnerships, especially if the policy entails military ventures, the objective must be widely perceived as both worthy and attainable. Without those features, public support for a policy proves insufficient from the beginning or soon erodes, and either development is disastrous in a democratic political system.
Officials must preserve American values by making an honest assessment of the issues at stake. Too often, U.S. policy makers have hyped threats to national security. In retrospect, the alleged dangers posed by such adversaries as North Vietnam, Iraq, Serbia and the Afghan Taliban border on caricature. At times, U.S. officials deliberately engaged in distortions to garner public support for elective wars and other ventures that could have been avoided. On other occasions, officials seemed to succumb to their own propaganda. In either case, public support dissipates rapidly when evidence mounts that the supposed security threat to America is actually minimal.
Although the American public might be willing to hold its collective nose and support a brutal ally—as they did regarding the alliance with Stalin during World War II—to repel a true security menace to the republic, they are not willing to do so for lesser stakes. It was both inappropriate and unrealistic to expect the public to embrace partnerships with the likes of South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem or Nguyen Van Thieu unless there was a compelling security justification. A similar problem exists today when U.S. officials expect the American people to endure major sacrifices to keep the likes of Hamid Karzai in power. In all too many instances, even a reasonable, much less compelling, justification for such an expenditure of American lives and tax dollars has been lacking.
To preserve American values, officials must be candid about the nature of Washington’s proposed clients. It is one thing to justify a partnership with an authoritarian ally on the basis of pragmatic considerations. President Franklin Roosevelt epitomized such realpolitik when he once famously observed of a de facto ally: “He’s an s.o.b., but he’s our s.o.b.” It is quite another matter to whitewash the behavior of such partners and pretend that they are anything other than corrupt autocrats. Yet, U.S. administrations often have done exactly that. It insulted the intelligence of the American people, as well as publics around the world, to portray the likes of the shah of Iran, Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, South Korean dictator Park Chung‐hee and the Afghan mujahideen as members of the “free world,” but U.S. officials did so anyway. The efforts to laud Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf and Iraq’s Nuri al‐Maliki reflected the same approach.
When the actual behavior of corrupt, albeit friendly, autocrats makes a mockery of such portrayals, the American people understandably recoil from working with those leaders—even when on some occasions there may be a reasonable argument for preserving a partnership to protect valid U.S. interests.
When partnerships with authoritarian allies do become necessary, Washington’s association should be the minimum required to achieve crucial goals. The United States has fared best when it has pursued cautious, limited and pragmatic relationships with autocratic allies. Richard Nixon’s rapprochement with China in the 1970s fit that description. That move altered the global balance of diplomatic and geopolitical power in the Cold War. The rapprochement forced the Soviet Union to turn its attention from applying pressure on the democratic West because it now had to deal with another adversary working in cooperation with Washington. However, most U.S. officials did not delude themselves or try to deceive the American people about the nature of China’s regime. They recognized that it was a ruthless one‐party state. Nor did Washington seek to make Beijing a close ally on issues other than countering Soviet power and influence. The two countries were allies of convenience, nothing more. That pragmatic Cold War relationship with Beijing ought to be the model for those other, relatively rare, occasions when a security partnership with an authoritarian regime might be necessary.
Minimize the occasions for entanglements that undermine American values by reassessing U.S. interests and global position. U.S. leaders have a track record of exaggerating threats to America’s security and interests in order to, among other goals, justify partnerships with unsavory regimes and political movements. Part of the problem is the carryover of a mindset from World War II and the early Cold War period when powerful enemies did pose a significant security threat. But the situation today is substantially different—and it has been for several decades.
With an enviable geographic position (weak and friendly neighbors to the north and south and vast oceans on both flanks), the largest economy in the world, a conventional military establishment far superior to any competitor and a huge, sophisticated nuclear deterrent, the United States is the most secure great power in history. The lack of an existential, or even a serious, threat means that U.S. leaders have extraordinarily latitude to adopt policies that minimize America’s involvement in quarrels in other parts of the world. That factor also means that only on rare occasions should Washington have to face the dilemma of forging close relationships with authoritarian partners. In most instances, an arm’s-length relationship with such regimes is all that is necessary or appropriate. Adopting a more restrained foreign policy would greatly reduce the number of occasions when policy makers have to confront a conflict between America’s tangible interests and its fundamental values.
Polling data also indicate that the American public would like to see the adoption of a more selective, restrained policy. In this instance, the instincts of ordinary Americans more accurately reflect international realities than the views of the “best and brightest” in the foreign‐policy community. Washington needs to adopt a global role worthy of pervasive public support—a policy that is more effective and far more ethical than has been the case in recent decades.