Revising and reviving a values-based foreign policy at a time of unprecedented global fragility, complexity and uncertainty is an intimidating proposition. The strategic environment has radically shifted from the heady optimism of the post-Cold War unipolar moment, the apparent hegemony of an international order based on the assumed harmony of liberal values, democratic governance, and free markets, and the conviction that a potent blend of economic globalisation and technological innovation was rendering authoritarian states ever more anachronistic and unsustainable.
It was in that context that an ethical dimension to foreign policy appeared appropriate, even inevitable, alongside a ‘doctrine of an international community’ as the political corollary of a process of globalisation generating interdependence and creating the space for a ‘global alliance for global values’ – the presumed universal values of the liberal West – vouchsafed by the rules-based international order. When “values and interest merge,” the traditional dilemma of balancing security and idealism is resolved. “If we can establish and spread the values of liberty, the rule of law, human rights and an open society then that is in our interest too. The spread of our values makes us safer.”
Yet recent analyses and debates on both sides of the Atlantic suggest a profound crisis of confidence in the resilience of democratic institutions and the liberal values on which they rest. On the other hand, by puncturing the comfortable orthodoxies of the post-Cold War era, the current democratic recession and the COVID-19 pandemic may provide an opportunity for a reappraisal, revival and reassertion of liberal democratic ideas and institutions.
Like Moliere’s women characters who spoke prose without realising it, foreign policy practitioners invariably if unwittingly employ ethical criteria in decision-making. But is the UK’s bipartisan consensus that a values-based foreign policy is both feasible and desirable still sustainable? Is it feasible to cultivate an explicitly values-based approach or ethical foundation to foreign policy when the nature and validity of those values and fundamental principles are contested, both within and beyond liberal democracies?
The principles that drive British foreign policy are “obsolete,” according to a former Defence and Foreign Secretary. Policy-makers have been guided by a range of erroneous assumptions – that globalisation is immutable and global governance is replacing geopolitical rivalry, for instance – in need of revision, Sir Malcolm Rifkind wrote in the preface to a recent report. The UK needs “a thorough re-appraisal of the dominant assumptions that have guided our strategic thinking,” the report added. “As wider state competition intensifies, Britain needs to re-empower itself to compete with revisionist and expansionist powers.”
A leading US strategist echoes the demand of a “new set of assumptions” to underpin foreign policy. “Contrary to the optimistic predictions made in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, widespread political liberalisation and the growth of transnational organisations have not tempered rivalries among countries.” Likewise, “the uncomfortable truth,” is that “visions of benevolent globalization and peace-building liberal internationalism have failed to materialise, leaving in their place a world that is increasingly hostile to American values and interests.”
The current US administration’s ‘principled realism,’ based on the defence rather than the evangelical promotion of values, reflects the reality that ‘geopolitics is eternal.’ “A main objective of US strategy, therefore, should be to prevent the accumulation of activities and trends that harm US interests and values, rather than to pursue grand projects such as trying to determine how China or other countries should govern themselves” (my emphasis). Trump has reignited debate “on some concepts that we thought were settled” and forced the foreign policy establishment to reconsider “first principles,” said another former foreign policy adviser.
Liberal values are being “challenged intellectually and politically by states within and outside the West,” adds a prominent European analyst. The four central assumptions about the beneficent impact of free trade and economic interdependence, innate human rights, the universality of democracy and multilateralism are under dispute, reflecting a growing conviction that “Western universalism was just a false front for Western particularism.”
Such analyses reflect a concern – on both sides of the Atlantic and within Europe – that the appeal of liberal values is waning, that the optimistic consensus of the post-Cold War international liberal order has fractured, and that the resurgence of illiberal and autocratic powers has ushered in an era of geopolitical competition. Furthermore, “Westlessness” has dissipated democracies’ cohesion and identity, prompting some to argue that we are witnessing “the decay of ‘the West’ as a relatively cohesive geopolitical configuration anchoring a normative model of global order in which commitments to human rights, democracy, and the rule of law are central,” in short, as a champion of global constitutionalism.
Undermined by the internal threat of ascendant illiberal, nativist and populist forces, liberal democracies also confront the external challenge of an authoritarian resurgence. Russia, China, and other illiberal actors have employed an innovative repertoire of techniques – from disinformation to influence operations – to take advantage of democracies’ openness and pluralism while advancing an autocratic model of governance and set of values as an alternative to liberal democratic norms and institutions.
The latest in a series of “transformational changes that left many nations unmoored from old certainties,” COVID-19 is, with the Cold War, “one of the two greatest tests of the U.S.-led international order since its founding,” says the US Council on Foreign Relations. “Nothing else since that time approaches the societal, political, and economic effects of the virus on populations around the world.” The COVID-19 pandemic has further sapped the “strategic position, credibility, and moral authority” of the world’s most powerful democracy, according to another analysis, which notes that traditional US allies “are losing faith in American leadership while illiberal regimes are growing in number, stature, and audacity.” The pandemic is deepening and accelerating the democratic downturn, as authoritarian and illiberal actors take advantage of the crisis to further erode liberties and undermine democratic institutions, according to a recent open letter signed by 62 former world leaders, 13 Nobel Laureates and 73 pro-democracy institutions.
COVID-19 has demonstrated that “the blithe assumption in much of the West that liberal democracy is self-evidently superior to other forms of governance is unwarranted and self-defeating.” The transition to the post-American era is taking place in “a growing strategic, political, and normative void — a new world disorder….. characterised primarily by a lack of clarity (or agreement) about the rules of the international system [and] the steady de-universalisation of norms.” The crisis will “sharpen great power rivalries and hasten the shift in the global balance of power from west to east,” with China most likely to emerge “as a bigger global player in political as well as economic terms,” with Europe’s democracies much diminished, the Economist Intelligence Unit adds.
The challenge of forging a credible values-based foreign policy is all the more problematic and intimidating given the global regression evident in the declining number of democracies and the growing fragility of democratic institutions and culture:
- A 2020 survey of 210 states registered a 14th consecutive year of decline in freedom, as measured by political rights and civil liberties.
- Only 5.7 per cent of the world’s population live in a ‘full democracy’ and more than a third under authoritarian rule.
- Some 52 per cent of citizens are dissatisfied with the quality of democracy, compared with 44 per cent who are satisfied, highlighting the fragility of democratic values.
- Autocracies comprise a majority of the world’s political regimes, with 92 countries hosting 54 per cent of the world’s population. Almost 35 per cent of the world’s population – 2.6 billion people – live in autocratising states across all regions, including G20 nations.
Perhaps more profoundly, the halt to the forward march of democratic governance has punctured the West’s complacent post-Cold War teleological assumptions that history was moving in an inexorably liberal direction, that autocracies were as unsustainable as they were anachronistic and that a robust international consensus underpinned the norms, rules and institutions of the global order. Consequently, the world is “now immersed in a fierce global contest of ideas, information, and norms.”
The rise of illiberal forces within democratic states potentially undermines their credibility in advancing ethical foreign policies, as “populists undermine the informal norms and values critical for liberal democracies to flourish,” notably the vital norms of forbearance (restraint in exercising institutional prerogatives) and tolerance (acceptance of opposition and criticism). Populism emerged from a ‘cultural backlash’ against long-term socio-economic trends across the West, while in Central and Eastern Europe; it took the form of an ‘illiberal counterrevolution’ against the liberal norms that animated the post-1989 transitions. The domestic crisis of confidence translated into greater timidity and insularity in foreign policy. “Where the years after the Cold War saw growing civilian protection internationally and a surge in accountable government nationally, so today we see the reverse,” not least in Syria, as the “crisis of Western values” at home acquired “a bloodier, more violent face” abroad.
The prevailing mix of uncertainty, volatility and interdependence in the global system enhances the fragility of democratic institutions and values. Such ‘Black Swan’ events as a global pandemic, cyberattacks or nuclear terrorism could “lead to fundamental changes in the principles and laws that govern liberal democratic states and the international sovereign state system,” notes a former US State Department Policy Planning director (writing prior to the outbreak of COVID-19). Indeed, we have already witnessed how unanticipated large migrant flows “upset the balance of political and ideational interests that has helped to sustain liberal democracy.”
How should the UK respond to the wider international crisis of liberal democracy (in a values context)
Just as Voltaire observed that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, Roman nor an empire, many critics say the same of the liberal international order. Yet crises generate opportunities and the current democratic regression provides an occasion for the reconsideration and reassertion of core liberal values. With China and Russia making considerable investments in media and other forms of ideological infrastructure in an effort to revise the established conventions and norms of the prevailing liberal international order, the defence and promotion of values has become a new terrain of strategic competition.
The traditional cleavage between a ‘realist-conservative’ approach to foreign policy that highlights the objective, morally neutral pursuit of the national interest, and the ‘idealist-liberal’ insistence that values should shape policy preferences is breaking down. While all states claim to pursue the ‘national interest,’ notions of identity and culture, including values, are central to how it is defined. With respect to foreign policy, values are not ethical principles per se but “principles that influence political beliefs and action.”
The conventional dichotomy of interests vs. values in foreign policy is anachronistic and unhelpful in an era when revisionist authoritarian regimes engage in various forms of ideological conflict – from the Kremlin’s ‘information warfare’ to China’s United Front influence operations – to subvert democracies from within and to undermine the established norms of the liberal international order. In this age of great power competition, authoritarians aim to sap the moral appeal of liberal values in order to legitimise own autocratic rule, to expand their spheres of influence and to present a countervailing force against the expansion of open societies.
In any case, as a leading US diplomat recently observed, a propos foreign policy analysts’ preoccupation with realism v. idealism, offshore balancing, primacy and hegemony, “The concepts from international relations and doctrines help frame debates, but they do not offer policy makers guidance about what to do.” Practitioners, he added, “considered strategic reference points – about georgraphy, economics, power and politics – but prized flexibility, adaptability and trying what might work.” One reason why British practitioners have traditionally shied away from hubristic foreign policy doctrines in favour of pragmatism and empiricism.
The new era of strategic competition is likely to enhance the salience of values in foreign policy. “A state’s values are not just part of its foreign policy,” according to a ‘realist’ geopolitical analyst, “they are paramount to it.” Indeed, without “a belief in its own values, a foreign policy of any kind is nearly impossible to execute.” Because they are advanced “through the projection of power, understanding a world of competing powers requires a discussion of values,” not least because “once a great state or empire loses such a belief in its own values, it must proceed into decline.”
In an era of strategic competition, the projection of a nation’s values is a low-cost source of comparative advantage. Few states will admit to practicing a morally bereft Realpolitik, with even autocratic regimes claiming to represent and advance a values-based approach to foreign policy. The Kremlin instrumentalises the Russian Orthodox Church in its claim to represent the ‘traditional values’ of Christianity, alongside Putin-friendly ideologues such as Alexander Dugin advocating the “blood and soil” values of nationalism to receptive illiberal forces abroad as part of the Kremlin’s ongoing efforts to “discredit and damage Western liberal institutions and values.”
While the West purports to promote the universal values of the Enlightenment, China’s ostensibly Communist regime insists it has a comparable civilisational narrative rooted not in the principles of Marxism-Leninism but in the Confucian idea of ‘harmony’. In practice, however, Beijing’s ‘coercive diplomacy’ and projection of its ‘sharp power’ entails the “rigorous, ruthless advancement of China’s interests and values at the expense of those of the West.” By exercising sharp power, “the repressive values of authoritarian systems—which encourage top-down authority, censorship, and the monopolization of power—are projected outward,” undermining democracies’ sovereignty, institutional integrity, and values— in effect, “marketing dictatorship.” Authoritarian regimes have been notably successful within international institutions, to such a degree that “norms privileging state security, civilizational diversity, and traditional values over liberal democracy now enjoy significant backing, and they are reshaping the international environment,” raising questions about the utility of multilateral forums as a channel for advancing values-based foreign policy.
This new contest of values is a rebuke to the triumphalist delusions of the 1990s that economic, cultural and political ‘liberalisation’ was inexorably ascendant, that Europe would soon be ‘whole, free, and at peace’ and that China would eventually be incorporated as a ‘responsible stakeholder’ in the liberal international order. But while liberal democracies face new constraints and challenges to efforts to assert or defend established international norms, intensifying competition between rival values systems demands an explicit and unapologetic assertion of what the UK represents, including the culture or way of life we aspire to protect and project, and the active promotion of our values as an instrument of influence.
It was during the post-Cold War heyday of liberal interventionism or ‘muscular liberalism’, that some Western leaders “claimed to infuse their actions with moral considerations that go beyond, and help to redefine, the national interest of their respective countries,” as manifested in humanitarian interventions and human rights conditionalities in foreign aid, for instance. The ‘golden era’ of the rules-based world order from 1989 to 2009 saw a raft of normative institutions and innovations, including the International Criminal Court, new UN peacekeeping missions, and the expansion and consolidation of women’s and LGBT rights. Yet while few dispute the benign intent and impact of value-driven social movements such as Doctors Without Borders, “What remains controversial is the extent to which governments can transmogrify into moral actors in international society.” Especially when the strategic context has radically shifted, placing democratic states on the defensive.
By traditional realist logic, “combining ethics and foreign policy is a category mistake, like asking if a knife sounds good rather than if it cuts well, or whether a broom dances better than one that costs more,” notes one analyst. “So, in judging ….foreign policy, we should simply ask whether it worked, not whether it was moral.” Yet it is precisely the practical, real-world outcomes of values-based foreign policy that has generated skepticism, if not pushback, among practitioners and public alike.
The US administrations of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama each adopted foreign policies that privileged the promotion of American values over vital national security interests, not least in their efforts to democratise foreign states, and all three presidents failed. Similarly, the huge human and financial costs of the international community’s engagement in Afghanistan caused other analysts to insist that the ‘liberal world order’ is not an entity of fixed principles but comprises two different strains: a ‘liberalism of imposition’ – activist, interventionist, and committed to the aggressive promotion of liberal values; and a ‘liberalism of restraint’ – moderate, empathetic, and non-interventionist.
Consequently, over the past decade, US foreign policy has witnessed a transition from transformational diplomacy to transactional relations, an approach that shamelessly elevates economic and security interests over ideals. Even the administration’s critics concede that the end of the era of Pax Americana places the US – like other democracies –at a watershed and confronting fresh strategic choices. “Does the United States reaffirm itself to the cause of freedom, human dignity, and democracy at home and abroad—or allow it to be chipped away? Does it compromise the values, promises, and foundational liberties etched in the US Constitution because of the latest insult or opportunity that arises?”
Developments in the US also suggest the need to reconsider the domestic consensus or social contract underpinning foreign affairs and, by extension, the credibility of a values-based foreign policy. There is an emerging bipartisan view that US foreign engagement should be reviewed with a “focus on how foreign policy connects to the doorstep issues of average Americans” which would also reflect “renewed suspicion of losing sovereignty or decision-making to bodies beyond voters’ reach and control.”
With the multipolar alternative to the post-war liberal rules-based order yet to take definitive form; it is imperative that the UK plays a role by asserting its interests and values in shaping its institutional contours and content. Whether or not ethical principles in foreign affairs are, as former UK foreign minister William Hague suggested, “part of our national DNA,” concern for democracy and human rights, “while not always in the mainstream of British policy-making historically”, has been a consistent strand of foreign policy in support of such values as national self-determination – from the Greeks in the 1820s and Gladstone’s support for Italian unification through Versailles and the Balkans more recently.
The insistence that values and interests are readily conflated, merged or otherwise reconciled tends to disguise the political considerations driving policy choices. Yet the likely efficacy of a values-based foreign policy rests on more than the bipolar choice between geopolitical calculations and humanitarian principles, but on balancing the three dimensions of intentions, means and consequences, perhaps by means of an ‘ethical scorecard.’
The primary principles of British foreign policy include a commitment to rule of law, not least to international law as embodied in treaties and the application of human rights law through such institutions as international courts and dispute resolution forums. But for a more comprehensive list, we might consider the ‘strategic priorities’ outlined in the 2005/06 FCO budget lines for ‘Delivering Foreign Policy/Administration’ since “the principles encompassed in these objectives are as close as it may be possible to come to an explicit statement of the UK’s national interests as they relate to our foreign policy”:
- Making the world safer from terrorism and weapons of mass destruction
- Protection of the UK from illegal immigration, drug trafficking and other international crime
- An international system based on the rule of law, which is better able to resolve disputes and prevent conflicts
- An effective EU in a more secure neighbourhood
- Promotion of UK economic interests in an open and expanding global economy
- Sustainable development underpinned by democracy, good governance and human rights
- Security of UK and global energy supplies
- Security and good governance for the UK’s overseas territories
The policy-implementation of these principles is, of course, problematic. In some circumstances, they may clash, in line with Isaiah Berlin’s observation that desirable vales may be incompatible. Nevertheless, given these provisos, priorities for advancing a values-based foreign policy in the new environment of strategic competition should include:
- Cultivating democratic solidarity: Confronting the authoritarian resurgence requires a renewed commitment to democratic solidarity – to enhance deeper cooperation with fellow democracies (not least in such fora as the UN Human Rights Council) and with liberal forces in civil society and liberal to establish a liberal bulwark. This demands a multidimensional approach, employing the tools of ‘transformational diplomacy’ in bilateral relations, multilateral institutions and ad hoc networks.
- Reforming global governance: In a world of strategic competition, growing inequality, and rapid technological innovation, “where ideologies as well as pathogens spread with viral ferocity….the stakes are too high and the consequences too dire to simply stick with what worked in the past and hope for the best.” A values-based foreign policy that seeks to defend liberal norms and democratic institutions requires institutional innovation and political creativity. Western policymakers deluded themselves that the trade and economic benefits of globalisation and the moral magnetism of their soft power would eventually convert autocratic rivals into liberalise partners. Yet the record of multilateral institutions, from the UN to the WTO, shows that relatively few states respect the liberal principles that maintain the international system. Consequently, a ‘smaller, deeper liberal order’ of industrialised democracies would “reaffirm liberal principles while limiting the scope and membership of liberal orderto shore up its integrity, legitimacy, and resilience,” argues a former National Security Council official in the Bush and Obama administrations.
- Reform the Community of Democracies: British diplomats are reportedly promoting a new forum of leading democracies, the D-10, designed to establish a bulwark against resurgent authoritarianism. This initiative echoes recent for a formal D-10 to function as a “steering committee of the democratic coreof the rules-based global system”, alongside an Alliance of Free Nations, a free world technology alliance and a Free World Free Trade Agreement to “strengthen coordination among democracies and facilitate the sharing of best practices across democracies.” The UK should work with its partners to expand G-7 activities and membership, adding consolidated democracies such as Australia and South Korea, converting the G-7 into a D-10 to refashion a global order that defends liberal principles. The UK should act as a catalyst in reforming and complementing the current Community of Democracies (CD) into a more streamlined, action-focused hub by tightening membership criteria and establishing an action agenda on the theme of Defending Democracy, providing expertise and technical assistance on such shared strategic challenges as electoral interference, disinformation, corruption and kleptocratic influence. In collaboration with the Alliance for Democracies and the Club of Madrid, it would constitute a forum for established democracies to support and ‘socialise’ leaders of emerging democracies.
- Promote ad hoc collaboration among democracies to address strategic challenges: Autocratic powers like Russia and China have formed alternative organisations, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), to elevate the principles of sovereignty and ‘civilisational diversity’ to counter prevailing international liberal norms. The SCO has even acted as a pole of attraction for established democracies such as India and NATO member Turkey, which has promoted the SCO as an alternative to EU membership. Given the limitations of formal multilateral institutions in defending liberal norms and holding transgressors of international law to account, international cooperation on major global challenges is likely to be driven primarily by ‘mission-driven coalitions’ and similar flexible arrangements of like-minded states.  Regional groupings for which democracy is a defining criterion of membership, such as the Organization of American States, the African Union, and NATO, and the EU are suited “to act on challenges where democratic principles make a qualitative difference, such as corruption, development, humanitarian crises, and cybersecurity.”
If a state’s global ‘soft power’ draws on three principal resources – culture, political values, and foreign policy – the UK is in an enviable position relative to most other states. The UK still sits at the hub of Winston Churchill’s “three majestic circles” of Europe, the global Commonwealth and the transatlantic axis or ‘Anglosphere’ – a pivot of more strategic value than a mere bridge between Europe and the US through which the UK can deploy its global assets. “A global language. Global businesses and NGOs. And global networks….Britain as a global hub, promoting our values and interests on the global stage.”
Taking advantage of its strategic position at the nexus of robust European, Atlantic and Commonwealth networks – the UK is well-positioned to act as the catalyst for a new constellation of democracies – complementing and consolidating current alliances such as NATO and the G-7. Embedded in a firm commitment to core democratic values, such initiatives would serve as the institutional embodiment of liberal democratic norms, while constituting a potent countervailing power to autocratic states and malign non-state actors alike.
Michael Allen is a Special Assistant at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. and editor of the NED’s Democracy Digest blog.
Image by www.kremlin.ru under (CC).
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