Dealing with Bad Allies: the Case for Moral Realism

IN THE West Wing episode “The Women of Qumar,” the White House concludes a $1.5 billion arms sale to the fictional country of Qumar on the Persian Gulf in exchange for an extended lease on a base for the U.S. Air Force. C. J. Cregg, the president’s press secretary, is livid about the deal because of the Qumari government’s nasty treatment of women. (The parallel with the conduct of the governments of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain was not terribly subtle.) As a woman herself, Gregg views a close relationship between the United States and an odious regime as utterly unacceptable. In the climatic scene she confronts the president’s national-security adviser, also a woman, about the deal. The national-security adviser justifies the arrangement as strengthening the U.S. military’s position in that part of the world. Gregg will have no part of such an excuse, and she wrings an admission out of her colleague that the military base was not essential; it was merely “convenient.”

That level of justification should never be acceptable in the real world. Yet the evidence is overwhelming that U.S. administrations adopt that standard routinely. The convenience standard for backing corrupt, thuggish rulers is especially worrisome given Washington’s excessively interventionist foreign policy. Indeed, there are many initiatives that are considered necessities within the context of that policy that would come nowhere close to clearing the bar if the United States had a more restrained and cautious policy largely confined to the defense of vital American security interests. While there may be times when, for legitimate security reasons, it is necessary to make ethical compromises, it is nonetheless imperative to establish some standards to determine when a situation warrants making that sacrifice and when it does not. Three factors must be considered. First, how crucial is the U.S. interest at stake? Second, how seriously is that interest threatened? Finally, just how odious is Washington’s prospective partner? The first consideration is the most important, but the others are far from minor.

In determining what kind of interest—security, economic or political—is involved and how important it is to the well being of the American people, it is essential to define the pertinent terms. Unfortunately, that is something U.S. officials often fail to do at all, or at best do in a perfunctory, slipshod fashion. But not all interests are created equal; some are vastly more important than others, and threats to less important ones mandate greater restraint about making ethical compromises.

Determining the nature and level of national interests is a complex exercise, and the following is merely a rough guide to that task. In general, though, interests can (and should) be divided into four broad categories: vital,secondary or conditional, peripheral, and barely relevant. Each category warrants a different level of response from the United States and a different degree of association with potential authoritarian partners.

UNFORTUNATELY, IN both the Cold War and the so-called War on Terror, U.S. leaders have had a tendency to lump almost everything into the “vital interest” category. That is unfortunate on several levels, not the least because such thinking provides a rationale for unnecessarily embracing repulsive regimes. The reality is that for any nation, but especially for the United States, vital interests are few in number. National survival is obviously the most important interest, but the preservation of political independence, domestic liberty and economic well-being from external threats all are part of the mix as well. How secure those vital interests are depends heavily on both the threat environment and the capabilities of the adversary in question.

The United States may be the most secure great power in history. Not only does it benefit from having two vast oceans on its eastern and western flanks, which renders a large-scale conventional attack on the American homeland virtually impossible, but it also has the luxury of dealing with an assortment of weak, and for the most part friendly, neighbors throughout the hemisphere. There is no country that even approaches being a serious military peer competitor in America’s neighborhood. For all the talk of Brazil’s rise, even that country has an enormous distance to go before it could achieve the status of economic peer competitor. In the Western Hemisphere, the United States is, and is likely to remain for the foreseeable future, the utterly dominant strategic and economic player.

Even viewing the security environment on a global basis, it is difficult to identify many credible threats to America’s vital interests. Although there are a handful of rising powers (most notably India and China), the United States still has a sizable economic edge and an enormous military advantage. Moreover, both of those rising powers have a considerable stake in maintaining decent relations with the United States. Indeed, New Delhi’s strategic interests substantially overlap those of Washington. The situation with Beijing is more complex and ambiguous, and there are some issues that could lead to significant bilateral tensions. China’s claim of sovereignty over Taiwan remains a point of conflict, as do Beijing’s expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea. Even so, there are important factors, especially the mutually lucrative trade relationship, that serve to mute those tensions.

Moreover, even if a major power or an alliance of major powers did seek to challenge the United States, it is difficult to see how they could menace America’s survival, political independence, domestic liberty or economic health. A direct threat to any of those interests seems far-fetched. Even a campaign to so substantially alter the global distribution of power that the shift could pose an indirect threat to America’s vital interests is an extremely remote danger. That scenario would require a hostile power or an alliance of hostile powers being poised to dominate multiple regions that have crucial security and economic assets. Specifically, in today’s world, such an adversary would have to be capable of gaining control of Europe and East Asia and the South Asia/Persian Gulf region.

World affairs are not akin to a fairy tale with easy moral lessons and preordained happy endings.

U.S. policymakers feared precisely that kind of outcome during World War II with the alliance between Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, and Washington fretted about a similar danger during the late 1940s and early 1950s when the Soviet Union’s power was ascendant. Whatever the legitimacy of those worries in earlier decades—and the danger was substantially overblown—the notion of an adversary or adversaries dominating all three regions today or in the foreseeable future is the stuff of paranoid fantasy.

The mere emergence of a global peer competitor—much less an outright global adversary on the scale of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union—is improbable for the next several decades. In the unlikely event that such an adversary emerges, the United States is more than capable of dealing with the challenge. Despite its recent economic malaise—and the self-inflicted wounds caused by the federal government’s fiscal mismanagement—the United States still has the largest and most impressive economy in the world, accounting for more than one-fifth of global output. Washington’s military advantages are even more daunting. No nation can come close to fielding conventional forces that rival America’s.

Washington’s advantage in nuclear weaponry is equally apparent. The only country that has an arsenal comparable to that of the United States is Russia. And Russia’s economic, political and demographic problems make that country a one-dimensional, anemic peer competitor. China deploys a meager arsenal of a few hundred nuclear weapons, most of which are configured to be useful only in a second-strike (i.e., a response to a nuclear attack) scenario. It would take at least a decade, and probably much longer, for China to deploy a nuclear capability that came close to matching America’s.

A direct military challenge by a would-be peer competitor is far-fetched and would require a suicidal mentality by that country’s political leadership. America’s other adversaries are strictly second-tier or even third-tier powers, such as Iran and North Korea. Such countries are totally outclassed by Washington’s conventional military power, and although Pyongyang is attempting to barge into the global nuclear-weapons club (and Tehran may still harbor ambitions to do so), any arsenals that they might develop would be miniscule compared to the vast U.S. stockpile. Indeed, their purpose in developing a small nuclear-weapons capability appears to be primarily to deter the United States from making them the target of the kind of coercion that Washington employed against such nonnuclear adversaries as Serbia, Iraq and Libya.

What about the possible threat that terrorism (either state-sponsored or nonstate) poses to America’s vital interests? Experts who highlight that threat note the logic of deterrence that applies to states may not be relevant to nonstate actors. America’s vast military superiority, including its strategic nuclear deterrent, they argue, would mean little, since there would often be no return address for a retaliatory strike. Furthermore, terrorists are much more likely than leaders of nation states to be suicidal, since they benefit little or nothing from the status quo and, therefore, have far less to lose by engaging in rash actions.

Some pundits and policy experts contend that the leadership of certain countries, especially Iran, might be similarly indifferent to the consequences to themselves or their populations of launching an attack on the United States or U.S. allies, such as Israel. But there is little evidence to support that thesis, and considerable evidence to refute it, especially in the case of Iran. Meir Dagan, the former chief of Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, told 60 Minutes in 2012 that the Iranian government, while ruthless, behaves in a rational fashion. Tehran’s conduct over the past three-and-a-half decades supports that conclusion. Despite vowing never to make peace with Saddam Hussein’s government after Iraqi forces attacked Iran in the early 1980s, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini did agree to a peace accord at the end of that decade. Tehran did so when Khomeini and other Iranian officials concluded that the costs of continuing the war would exceed any probable benefits, and that a favorable outcome, even after more years of warfare, was anything but certain. That behavior reflected sober calculation, not suicidal impulses. Attacking the United States, which has thousands of nuclear weapons, or even Israel, which experts estimate possesses at least seventy or eighty such weapons, would constitute the height of folly.

It is also indicative of rational Iranian conduct that there is no evidence Tehran has given chemical weapons to Hezbollah, Hamas or other extremist, nonstate allies. That restraint is all the more impressive because Iran has had those weapons in its arsenal since the mid-1980s. Again, the behavior of the mullahs regarding chemical weapons indicates that they understand the dire consequences of provoking the United States or its allies by distributing such nonconventional weapons to third parties, and they apparently have decided that the costs and risks overshadow any plausible benefits. That is a characteristic of rational and calculating, rather than suicidal, reasoning.

THE ATTACKS of September 11, 2001, of course, demonstrated that expectations of similar cautious logic apparently do not apply to Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Those attacks also created the impression of this country’s extreme vulnerability to terrorism in the minds of many Americans. But it is important to put that terrible day—and the more general threat that terrorism poses—into perspective. Terrorism is, and always has been, a tactic used by weak parties, not strong ones. That is especially true of nonstate actors.

Al Qaeda got lucky on September 11; not only did U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies fail to detect blatant signs of a terrorist plot using aircraft in the months leading up to the attack, but the execution (especially the complete collapse of both World Trade Center towers) was extraordinary. It would be extremely difficult for Al Qaeda or any other terrorist organization to carry off another assault on the scale of September 11—much less anything larger. Indeed, all of the other attacks conducted since September 11 have been much smaller in nature. The nightmare scenario of a terrorist group gaining control of a nuclear weapon—the one development that could produce an attack on a massive scale—cannot be ignored, but it is also a scenario that is exceedingly improbable.

Terrorism is more accurately viewed as a chronic security annoyance that must be managed rather than as an existential threat to America. It is important to remember, however, that ten times as many Americans die in automobile accidents each year than perished on that awful September day. The terrorist problem, while worrisome, can never pose a threat to America’s survival as a nation. It cannot—unless our policymakers overreact—even pose a serious menace to our economic health or domestic liberty. Most of the adverse consequences on those fronts since September 11 were not the result of that attack but of policies (the PATRIOT Act, the quagmire wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the pervasive domestic spying perpetrated by the National Security Agency) that overzealous U.S. leaders adopted.

The bottom line is that vital interests are rare, and serious threats to them are equally rare. In most cases, the United States would be able to neutralize such a threat by itself or in cooperation with democratic allies. If and when a sufficiently lethal threat exists, there is a legitimate case for working with almost any security partner, however odious. British statesman Winston Churchill, a staunch anti-Communist, undoubtedly had to hold his nose when his country forged an alliance with Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. But the threat that Nazi Germany posed to Britain’s security, perhaps even to its existence as an independent nation, made such a moral concession necessary. The only bona fide criticism that could be made of the British (and U.S.) willingness to work with Stalin was the tendency of some policymakers to pretend (or delude themselves into believing) that their security partner was anything other than a despot.

When national survival or another vital interest is truly in jeopardy, close relationships with even the most repulsive leaders and regimes are justified. But that ought to be the great exception, not the rule, when it comes to the conduct of America’s foreign policy. Even an effort to protect the next highest category of interests, secondary or conditional interests, requires a different, more rigorous, cost-benefit calculation.

SECONDARY INTERESTS are assets that are pertinent but not indispensable to the preservation of America’s physical integrity, independence, domestic liberty and economic health. For example, if one of the regions mentioned earlier came under the domination of an adversary, it would not automatically threaten the vital interests of the United States. America could still do reasonably well, for instance, even if China became the hegemon of East Asia, as long as Europe and the South Asia/Persian Gulf region remained outside Beijing’s orbit. Chinese dominion over East Asia, however, would make for a significantly more uncomfortable existence, and U.S. leaders would quite understandably want to prevent such an outcome. There are limits, though, to how far policymakers should go in adopting amoral, much less immoral, measures to contain China’s power.

Unlike the defense of vital interests, the defense of (or promotion of) secondary interests justifies only modest exertions. Washington might deem it beneficial to encourage and lend political and diplomatic support to the efforts of friendly countries to resist the growing power of an emerging, adversarial regional hegemon. In some cases, the transfer of militarily relevant technology, and even direct arms sales, to such countries might be warranted. But whereas the United States must be willing even to risk war to defend vital interests, that stance is usually unwarranted in the case of dealing with secondary interests.

Such a distinction also applies to the willingness to cooperate with unsavory foreign security partners. When secondary rather than vital interests are at stake, the bar should be higher for taking on such allies. It might be too much to insist that such a partner be a full-fledged democracy or have a squeaky-clean record on the issue of corruption, but at the same time there needs to be limits to Washington’s tolerance. Partnering with a Stalin (or a Chiang Kai-shek) was arguably necessary to counter the security threat to the United States that Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan posed after Pearl Harbor, but one could not make the same argument for embracing such individuals merely for the defense of secondary interests. To use a contemporary example, it would not be acceptable to establish a close relationship with North Korea’s totalitarian regime (in the unlikely event such an association were possible) merely to blunt China’s growing power in East Asia—even though preventing Chinese hegemony in that region is a secondary interest of the United States.

THE COST-BENEFIT calculation shifts further in the direction of caution when the matter involved is one ofperipheral interests. That category consists of assets that marginally enhance America’s security, liberty and economic well being, but the loss of which would be more of an annoyance than a significant blow. The existence of a hostile regime in a midsize country in Latin America (Venezuela comes to mind) is an example of a threat to a peripheral interest. Another example would be the onset of extensive political turbulence in the Middle East, given the probable impact on oil prices. It is asking too much for Washington to be indifferent to such matters, but there is nothing at stake that normally requires more than diplomatic exertions. Joint naval maneuvers between Venezuelan and Russian forces, which occurred in 2008, or a spike in oil prices, which occurred in 2011 during the so-called Arab Awakening political upheavals, were unsettling developments, but they hardly warranted any kind of U.S. military response or even a covert Central Intelligence Agency operation.

Restraint about creating relationships with autocratic security partners is even more essential in the case of peripheral interests than it is with secondary interests. To establish alliances with brutal and corrupt regimes in such cases is simply unwarranted. Unfortunately, most of the close relationships that Washington developed with such allies and clients during the Cold War involved little more than the protection or promotion of peripheral interests. That was certainly true of the ties with such tyrants as Ferdinand Marcos, the Somoza family or Mobutu Sese Seko. One would have been hard pressed to make a credible case that those associations advanced even legitimate secondary American interests, much less vital ones.

Many situations in the world do not rise even to the level of peripheral interests. They instead fall into the category of barely relevant matters. Whether Bosnia remains intact or divides into a Muslim-dominated ministate and a Serb republic, whether East Timor is well-governed, whether Ukraine or Russia has rightful title to Crimea—each can and should be a matter of indifference to the United States. It is highly improbable that such developments would have a measurable impact on America’s security, liberty or economic health. Washington ought to confine any role to one of routine diplomatic involvement on the margins—and sometimes not even that. In settings where not even peripheral U.S. interests are at stake, there is no justification at all for compromising American values to create security partnerships with unsavory allies or clients.

WHILE THE nature and extent of U.S. interests should be the principal screening mechanism for determining whether an alliance with an authoritarian regime is justified, an important secondary screening mechanism should be a determination of just how bad the prospective partner is. It is one thing if a potential ally or client is engaged in garden-variety corruption or harassment of political opponents. It is quite another if the corruption is pervasive, or even worse, if Washington’s new “friend” perpetrates systematic torture and murder.

The hardest call regarding a moral balancing act occurs when secondary interests are at stake. U.S. leaders can and should take a firm position against acquiring unsavory partners when only peripheral interests are involved—much less when the issue is barely relevant. Conversely, as noted earlier, the defense of vital interests sometimes requires making painful moral compromises. The defense of secondary interests, however, constitutes a grey area, and it is in that situation that judgment calls about the severity of the moral deficiency of a potential ally take on special importance. There are instances in which the balance may tilt in favor of establishing or maintaining a cooperative relationship with a morally defective ally.

At some point, though, the repulsive quality of a security partner is so bad that nothing except thwarting a serious threat to vital American interests can justify a close working relationship. Only repelling such a threat could possibly warrant backing the likes of Mobutu, the Guatemalan military dictators or even Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. That Washington supported such partners—often enthusiastically—even though far milder interests were at stake was an especially damning indictment of U.S. policy.

U.S. leaders sometimes seem inclined to make similar, casual compromises of fundamental American values in the campaign against radical Islamic terrorism. That is unfortunate for two reasons. On a practical level, crawling into bed with the likes of the Saudi royal family or the Pakistani military leadership risks incurring serious blowback from angry populations. Indeed, Washington’s willingness to back such corrupt and brutal elites provides fodder for the very terrorist movements we seek to neutralize.

But beyond the practical foreign policy and security considerations, those kinds of relationships create a moral rot within America’s own polity. It is not merely hypocritical; it is destructive to America’s values and sense of self-worth to betray fundamental principles for anything less than compelling reasons. The most practical way to minimize the temptation to back clients needlessly, and incurring the likely unpleasant consequences, is to adopt a policy of ethical pragmatism. That approach recognizes that world affairs are not akin to a fairy tale with easy moral lessons and preordained happy endings. Instead, world conditions require that the United States be flexible and practical in its conduct of foreign policy. But there is a great deal of territory between adopting cynical, Machiavellian practices and adhering to starry-eyed idealism that cannot work in the real world. The self-proclaimed realism of a Henry Kissinger leans too far toward the first pole, while the policy preferences of pacifist organizations tilt too far toward the second.

Ethical pragmatism endeavors to strike a balance between the extremes of those two approaches. It accepts the need for some dilution of moral standards in the conduct of foreign policy—but only if the American interests at stake are sufficiently important, the threat to those interests is serious and the compromise of values is not excessive, given the circumstances. Admittedly, all of that is dependent on the subjective judgment of policymakers, with all their human frailties. But ethical pragmatism at least provides some guidance for officials as they make their decisions. It guards against an “anything goes” mentality that needlessly sacrifices important principles. Applying such a standard might well have prevented the United States from engaging in some embarrassing, and at times shameful, actions during the Cold War and its aftermath. Developing and applying that standard holds the promise of minimizing the danger of such behavior in the future. C. J. Cregg was on to something.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at The National Interest, is the author of ten books and more than six hundred articles on international affairs. His latest book, coauthored with Malou Innocent, is Perilous Partners: The Benefits and Pitfalls of America’s Alliances with Authoritarian Regimes (Cato Institute, 2015).