The Magazine

Morality in Foreign Policy

From the February 10, 2003 issue: The members of the president's foreign-policy team have all become Reaganites.

Feb 10, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 21 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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AT THE REPUBLICAN NATIONAL CONVENTION IN 1976, as Ronald Reagan's challenge to Gerald Ford for the GOP presidential nomination was on the verge of falling short, the Reagan forces assembled for one last battle. They rallied behind a challenge to Ford's secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, and his "realistic" foreign policy of détente. They succeeded in substituting their own foreign policy plank for the administration's preferred one in the Republican platform. The Reagan plank was entitled "Morality in Foreign Policy."

In 1976, George W. Bush was, one assumes, like his father, a Ford supporter. Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz were serving in the Ford administration, and Cheney, as White House chief of staff, was directing the effort to stave off Reagan. Condoleezza Rice was in graduate school, doing work on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe that would later win the approbation of Kissinger's deputy, Brent Scowcroft.

Now all of them are Reaganites. What happened?

Well, Reagan won--first the presidency, then reelection, then the Cold War. In America, results matter. As President Bush said in his State of the Union address, "America's purpose is more than to follow a process--it is to achieve a result." The result the president had in mind was "the end of terrible threats to the civilized world." Reagan ended one such threat, with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Now, as the president explained, we face a different kind of threat--"a world of chaos and constant alarm," where "outlaw regimes" sponsor terrorism and acquire and trade in horrific weapons, the better to threaten their neighbors and intimidate their people. The nature of the regime is crucial, rather than some alleged underlying, geographically or economically or culturally determined "national interest." The priority of the political order implies a morally informed American foreign policy. Thus, a brutal tyranny like Saddam's is evil, Bush said, or else "evil has no meaning"--and Bush intends to liberate the people of Iraq from their regime. As President Bush said to the people of Iraq, "Your enemy is not surrounding your country--your enemy is ruling your country."

Now, it is true that regimes don't exist apart from the various material interests and geographical and historical characteristics of nations. So "morality in foreign policy" is always limited. Necessity has its claims. And the freedom and security of one's own nation come first. But our freedom and security turn out to be inextricably linked to the character of regimes elsewhere in the world.

It mattered that the Soviet Union was an "evil empire." It matters that North Korea has, as the president said, an "oppressive regime rul[ing] a people living in fear and starvation." Perhaps the only misstep in the foreign policy part of his State of the Union address was the president's statement that "the North Korean regime will find respect in the world, and revival for its people, only when it turns away from its nuclear ambitions." In truth, the regime of Kim Jong Il cannot and should not "find respect in the world." Of course, it may be prudent for now to try "to show the North Korean government" that its nuclear program is a mistake. But in the end, Americans look forward to the day when this regime is as much a thing of the past as that of Nicolai Ceaucescu or Joseph Stalin.

Temporary accommodations will always be with us, as long as we live in a world of nations, and regimes. President Bush has no hopes for world government, or for a world beyond conflict. He embraces "morality in foreign policy," but does not entertain illusions of "the end of foreign policy."

Bush does invoke a sort of "American exceptionalism." But his understanding of our mission is not narrowly American. "The liberty we prize," he said, "is not America's gift to the world, it is God's gift to humanity." Americans must be held to the same "high standard for humanity" as every other nation.

It is an admirable vision--one that's moral and strategic and practical. Now all the president has to do is execute it successfully--in Iraq, and beyond. For, to repeat, "America's purpose is more than to follow a process--it is to achieve a result." A vision can inspire and guide. But there is no substitute for victory.

--William Kristol