The Multiple Personality Disorder of American Foreign Policy

A number of bloggers have been expressing their solidarity with the Egyptian people today. On that subject I’m going to suggest the words of two friends of mine, Allan Bevere and Bob Cornwall. Yet while I sympathize with the Egyptian people, I am going to comment on something else.

Why is it that our moral outrage and our moral urgings as a nation and as a church often have little impact on the world at large? This is a question I hear occasionally. But I also hear expressions of confidence that, if we’ll just give voice to our moral position, we can change the world.

The reason the American church is often not heard, I believe, is that American Christians are too closely connected with American government and American policy. The reason America as a nation cannot speak with moral force in foreign policy is that our foreign policy is not a consistently moral one. I have a book on my shelves comparing diplomatic justifications for our invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965 and those of the USSR for the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. The arguments sound eerily similar.

We want our foreign policy to make other nations free and democratic, and at the same time we want those countries to support our foreign policy goals. Those are often contradictory goals, and our safety overrides our altruism and our crusade for democracy when those come into conflict. Yet often we try to pretend that our pursuit of self-interest in foreign affairs is actually an altruistic pursuit of the interest of others.

One of the nicest things I can say about our attitude is that we really lack the intestinal fortitude to pursue and consistent policy of realism and self interest. But since we do try to pursue our self interest, even though we back off when things get difficult, we are not even viewed as a reliable ally in that pursuit.

If we pursue democracy overseas, people will frequently choose governments we don’t like and pursue policies we oppose. We want them to be democratic, so long as they choose to do what we want them to do. We wanted a less corrupt government for Palestinians, for example, right up until they chose to elect Hamas.

Now we have an Egyptian government we have supported for many, many years. We have known about the problems there for all those years. Now that the Egyptian people have put their lives on the line for their freedom, we urge reform. That’s better than not doing so, but don’t be surprised if people are not terribly impressed. Yes, it’s better that we urge reform and quit propping up the existing government. But …

It would be nice, some time, to be ahead of the game, to support freedom before unarmed people are giving their lives for it, and to actually put our own interests on the line for the freedom we claim to value.

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