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What Should a Distinctively American Foreign Policy Do?

In this chapter from A New Textbook of Americanism: The Politics of Ayn Rand, Elan Journo answers the question: “What Should a Distinctively American Foreign Policy Do?”

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To celebrate the publication of A New Textbook of Americanism: The Politics of Ayn Rand, we’re showcasing several chapters by New Ideal contributors. Previously, we reprinted Onkar Ghate’s chapter “On American Political Philosophy” in two parts (here and here). Now we feature my chapter, “What Should a Distinctively American Foreign Policy Do?” Drawing upon Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, this essay underscores the necessity of defining foreign policy by reference to rational moral principles. You can appreciate the need for such principles by observing what American foreign policy looks like in their absence, notably under the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. It’s a longstanding pattern. Although the chapter was completed well before the election of Donald Trump, his administration has continued that pattern. — Elan Journo

The raid began sometime around midnight, local time, on May 2, 2011. Swooping down aboard helicopters, SEAL Team Six breached Osama Bin Laden’s fortified compound. When the firefight ended, they had put to death the man culpable for the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil. Hearing news of the successful raid, crowds gathered spontaneously outside the White House and near Ground Zero and elsewhere in Manhattan, cheering, singing “The Star Spangled Banner,” chanting “U.S.A! U.S.A!”1 The emotional sum of that night was an elation so many of us felt at the power of our military, sledgehammer-bold yet scalpel-precise. Mingled together was the sense that this is the kind of thing we should do to defend our lives; that this was a down payment on justice, long delayed.

While our military is an awesome instrument, our foreign policy — responsible for directing when and how to deploy the instrument — is an embarrassment. The backstory of the Bin Laden raid is one exhibit in the indictment. Recall that Pakistan was formally a “major non-NATO ally,” supposedly committed to the fight against jihadists.2 You might suppose we would seek Pakistan’s help with the raid on Bin Laden’s compound. After all, the compound was located in the city of Abbottabad, a mere two-hour drive from the capital Islamabad and about a mile down the road from a Pakistani military base and academy. But we went in without a word to Islamabad — and for good reason. What our policymakers well knew, but had been willfully blind to, was that for a decade, Pakistan had continued abetting Taliban and other Islamist fighters. Could it be trusted? No. Was the regime, which had received billions of dollars from us to combat Islamists, actually harboring Bin Laden? So it would seem.3 Why, then, proclaim it an ally?

We are the world’s mightiest nation, but we serve as a global ATM for people hostile to us and our interests.
The alliance with Pakistan, sealed with a handshake by George W. Bush, is hardly an outlier. Take the impossible-to-satirize situation with a major organ of American foreign policy that enjoys longstanding, bi-partisan support: foreign aid. Where does $28-odd-billion go every year?4 To countries where many, many people view us as an “enemy.” The Pew Global Attitudes Survey queried more than 325,000 people in 60 countries that receive U.S. aid. It asked whether they saw America as more of a “partner,” or more of an “enemy” (or neither). The countries with the highest percentage of respondents who viewed us as an “enemy” were also among those receiving significant amounts of U.S.-backed aid: the Palestinian territories (76 percent of respondents saw us as an “enemy”), Pakistan (64 percent), Turkey (49 percent), Lebanon (46 percent), Venezuela (39 percent).5

So, yes, we are the world’s mightiest nation, but we serve as a global ATM for people hostile to us and our interests. We spend years chasing down Osama Bin Laden and fighting his minions in Afghanistan, while at the same time we support Pakistan’s jihadist-enabling regime. Look broadly and deeply at American foreign policy, and you will find it crowded with many more instances of the same depressing theme. When considered as a whole, American foreign policy does not add up to a whole. It is a bewildering mish- mash of diverging, inconsistent goals. It lacks a unifying, guiding principle.

What principle should direct American foreign policy and define our interests?

What should the goal of American foreign policy be?

The place to start is not with the Sunday morning talk shows, nor the debates on Capitol Hill, nor scholarly arguments. We should look instead to the distinctive American approach to government, and consider the more basic question: what, in that original system, is the government’s proper job, domestically? The answer provides the principle for guiding its conduct of foreign affairs.

The political vision of America’s Founders, little understood today, was groundbreaking. They upended the traditional relationship between man and the state. For eons, man was subservient to some ruler, expected dutifully to kneel before some authority — the king, the church, the mob — commanding the power to dispose of his wealth, property, life. Rejecting that, the Founders held that government exists not to lord over men, but to serve as the protector of their freedom. Government derives its “just powers from the consent of the governed,” and its only reason for being is to protect the inalienable rights of citizens to live and pursue their own happiness.

In the twentieth century, Ayn Rand championed the full realization of the Founding Fathers’ vision of a free society. What precisely does the government’s protection of rights entail? Rand observed:

Man’s rights can be violated only by the use of physical force. It is only by means of physical force that one man can deprive another of his life, or enslave him, or rob him, or prevent him from pursuing his own goals, or compel him to act against his own rational judgment. The precondition of a civilized society is the barring of physical force from social relationships — thus establishing the principle that if men wish to deal with one another, they may do so only by means of reason: by discussion, persuasion and voluntary, uncoerced agreement.6

The government, through the police and objective law, acts as our agent of self-defense. That is its essential role in securing our freedom to pursue our goals, to trade, to prosper. Just as the police and courts are essential to protect our rights domestically, so we need an effective military force to protect our freedom from foreign threats.

The over-arching goal that should guide our foreign policy is the principle of individual rights.
For the same reason that the police must apprehend criminals domestically, the military must deter — and when necessary eliminate — foreign threats to our ability to live our lives and trade freely. Just as there are times when the police are morally justified in using retaliatory (even lethal) force to capture a dangerous criminal or end a threat, so there are times when the government must use retaliatory military force to thwart foreign aggressors.

And the only morally justifiable purpose for war? Self-defense. To echo the Founders, we delegate our right of self-defense to the government so that it can protect our freedom — both within our borders and outside them.

The over-arching goal that should guide our foreign policy is the principle of individual rights. What is in our interest as a nation in the arena of foreign affairs is nothing more than the aggregate interest of each American to the protection of his individual rights. The distinctive American approach to the purpose of government entails a foreign policy that is exclusively concerned with protecting our own rights. It means a policy of pursuing America’s self-interest.

That approach would radically transform how America interacts with the rest of the world.

What does a self-interested foreign policy look like?

The U.S. military operations in Iraq and in Afghanistan, at least on the surface, seemed to be about ending the real threats to our security. If only that were so. In my book Winning the Unwinnable War, I exposed in detail how Bush’s policy sacrificed the proper goal of eliminating whatever threats we faced.7. In reality, the Bush “war on terror,” distinguished by its hollow with-us-or- against-us rhetoric, left untouched the leading state-sponsors of jihadist terror- ism (notably, Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia). Where we deployed military forces, the primary mission of our troops was nation-building — re-opening schools, clearing sewers, guarding ballot boxes. On the battlefield, our troops clashed with Islamist fighters (seeking political domination under Allah’s laws), even as U.S. officials leading the “reconstruction” endorsed new constitutions installing sharia (Islamic religious law) as the supreme legal framework of Iraq and Afghanistan. Our policy’s actual aim was: enabling the poor and oppressed of the Middle East to voice their (predictably hostile) opinions at the ballot box and install jihadist-friendly leaders — which they did.

A full catalogue of the myriad inconsistencies in U.S. foreign policy would fill several tomes. Consider: even as our policy in Afghanistan was to fight the Taliban regime, Al Qaeda fighters, and their allied holy warriors, the Bush administration, made diplomatic overtures to the local branch of the Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, the progenitor of the Islamist movement from which Al Qaeda and many other jihadist groups derived. How does that add up? Or take another example, on a far larger scale. Compare our policy response to the “Arab Spring” uprising in Libya with our response to the post-election protests in Iran a couple of years earlier. What you find is that, yet again, instead of advancing our interests, we shrank from that goal.

Recall the massive street demonstrations in Iran in 2009. The clerics in Iran have led crowds in chants of “death to America” for 30-plus years, but here we saw spontaneous protests against the regime itself, with crowds reportedly shouting “death to the dictator” and “death to Khamenei.”8The cleric Ayatollah Khamenei is the supreme leader in a regime predicated on the supremacy of religious rule; the protesters were, in effect, challenging the very legitimacy of the Iranian theocracy. Defying a government that seeks totalitarian control, the protestors risked death at the hands of regime-backed militia sent to crush them.

For decades, Iran has been at war with us, but we pretend otherwise. In the name of self-defense, the U.S. government is morally obliged to eliminate this enemy.
We had ample reason to encourage the implosion of the Islamist regime in Tehran. Tehran is a leader of the Islamist movement, the cause animating al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Muslim Brotherhood, and kindred groups. Iran has inspired and funded jihadist terrorism, embodying the movement’s political ideal. It is a regime that tramples on the rights of its own citizens, and it ambitiously seeks to kill and subjugate beyond its borders. Our State Department has designated it as an active State Sponsor of Terrorism since 1984.9 Through proxies like Hezbollah, Iran has committed numerous acts of aggression against the United States and other Western interests. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps helped create and train Hezbollah, which hijacked a TWA airliner and which kidnapped, tortured and killed Americans. Iran was behind the 1983 bombings of the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon and later bombed the barracks of U.S. Marines, killing 241 people. Iran also orchestrated the 1996 car bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 U.S. servicemen.10

For decades, Iran has been at war with us, but we pretend otherwise. In the name of self-defense, the U.S. government is morally obliged to eliminate this enemy. A military option is widely viewed as off the table, however, because of the Iraq and Afghanistan failures. But when Iranians themselves marched in protest, seeking to remove from power their theocratic regime, we faced a prime opportunity to provide (at least) moral support to those brave protestors. If successful, their efforts could have brought to power a non-hostile regime, and drastically reduced the threat to American lives. That, after all, is the principle that defines our interest: to live in freedom and unmolested by foreign threats.

What did we do? Muttered a few limp words, belatedly, about being “appalled and outraged.” Then we flouted even that perfunctory rhetoric. By reaffirming that “the United States respects the sovereignty” of Iran, we endorsed the regime.11 Next, we hastened to invite Tehran, stained with fresh blood, to engage with us diplomatically. We forfeited an opportunity to safeguard our security and went out of our way to accommodate a belligerent regime that seeks nuclear capability.

With much at stake in Iran, we shied away from pursuing our own interests. But when we had little on the line, in Libya, we leapt into action, precisely because no one could validly accuse us of pursuing our self-interest. Under General Muammar Gaddafi, Libya was an abhorrent dictatorship. It was, however, at most a trivial threat to our security. During the so-called Arab Spring, protestors rebelled against Gaddafi.

Who were these protesters? What political goals did they seek? We didn’t ask. Stating no clear purpose for our involvement in enforcing the NATO no-fly zone, we dutifully scrambled jet fighters and put American lives in harm’s way.

Washington’s response to Libya and Iran refutes the notion that our foreign policy is animated by self-interest. We have seen that in fact the disgrace that passes for U.S. foreign policy lacks a guiding principle. What can be discerned is a pattern of clashing, disparate goals that we feel we can pursue, because they aim at “humanitarian” ends and the needs of others, above whatever benefits we imagine might come our way. (None do.)

The norm today is to shy away from the responsibility of judgment. The results speak for themselves.
It is deemed “selfish” to advance our own interests, whereas serving others, well, that is a universally accepted rationale. Yet, that kind of foreign policy can only sow chaos: much of what went wrong in Iraq and Afghanistan stemmed from putting a welfare agenda above the goal of eliminating whatever threat existed in those countries (and elsewhere).

Without a principle to direct it, our foreign policy is haphazard, warped, and ineffectual. It is hardly surprising that the hunt for Osama Bin Laden took nearly ten years. That he spent nearly six tranquil years living in Pakistan serves as an exclamation point.

Why moral judgment in foreign policy is indispensable

Examine the questionable U.S.-Pakistan alliance and you can appreciate — by its omission — the vital importance of a key feature of a self-interested foreign policy: the imperative of judging other regimes objectively. Distinguishing friend from foe (and every gradation in between) is crucial if we are to protect the lives and freedom of Americans. But the failure to exercise actual moral judgment was at the core of our approach to Pakistan.

Prior to 9/11, Pakistan, having supported the Islamists for years, was one of only three countries formally to recognize the Taliban’s totalitarian theocracy in neighboring Afghanistan. But post-9/11, the Bush administration claimed we needed Pakistan as an ally, and that the alternatives to dealing with the military dictatorship were far worse. Did we need Pakistan? Perhaps, but it is doubtful. Could we have formed an alliance with it? Only on one condition: if we treated this supposedly lesser of two evils as, in fact, evil, which means acknowledging the immorality of Pakistan’s past backing of the Taliban, and demanding that it combat the Islamists as proof of repudiating them. We would have at most an arm’s-length relationship, continually monitoring for evidence of Pakistan’s commitment — or betrayal. We would have to state publicly that both the regime and the pro-jihadists among its people are immoral, that our alliance is delimited to one goal, and that we would welcome and support new, pro-American, genuinely pro-freedom leaders in Pakistan.

In a nutshell, the alliance could have served a self-interested mission of defeating Islamists in Afghanistan, if we followed the facts and judged that we need to cooperate with “a pickpocket for the purpose of apprehending a mass murderer.”12

What we actually did was instantly canonize Pakistan and swallow its rhetoric about being “with us.” By 2007 the evidence of its deceit was so egregious, Newsweek reported that Islamist fighters, once “restricted to untamed mountain villages along the [Pakistani-Afghan] border,” now “operate relatively freely in cities like Karachi.” The Taliban “now pretty much come and go as they please inside Pakistan.” They easily slipped in and out of neighboring Afghanistan to arm and train their fighters.13 But our foreign policy evaded Pakistan’s true character, and thus we continually evaded mounting evidence that it was conning us, doing just enough to give the appearance of being an ally.

We acquired our new “ally” for the low, low price of $15 billion, and it betrayed us, again and again.14 Even some Pakistanis inside the regime are aghast at our policy:

The United States was neither speaking out against Pakistan nor changing its policy toward a government that was exporting terrorism, the [Pakistani] legislator lamented. “How many people have to die before they get it? They are standing by a military that protects, aids and abets people who are going against the U.S. and Western mission in Afghanistan, in Syria, everywhere.”15

We should embrace our self-interested pursuit of happiness and arm ourselves with the means to safeguard our freedom, so that we may live in peace.
The Pakistan debacle illustrates a wider point about what our foreign policy must do. We should pass judgment and act on it, because otherwise we cannot successfully protect the lives and freedom of Americans. That holds true, not only in the Middle East, a flashpoint from which the above examples are drawn, but also across the board. The norm today is to shy away from the responsibility of judgment. The results speak for themselves.

It is in those rare moments of sobriety, when our policymakers face facts and empower our military to act in our own interests, that we achieve such wins as the raid in Abbottabad. That kind of success is what Americans expect — and deserve — as the norm. Quite obviously our soldiers can deliver. But will our policymakers let them?

A vision for peace and prosperity

A foreign policy worthy of America is one that embraces our nation’s distinctive founding principle, the ideal of individual rights. To understand how that principle should guide our foreign affairs is to recognize how little a role it plays in current policymaking — and how urgently it is needed. Guided by that principle, we would embrace our self-interested pursuit of happiness and arm ourselves with the means to safeguard our freedom, so that we may live in peace, start a business, engage in free trade, build a career, raise a family, and thrive.

Explore more on these topics: Free Speech, Culture and Society, Government, Foreign Policy, Objectivism.

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  1. Peter Baker, Helene Cooper, and Mark Mazzetti, “Bin Laden Dead, Obama Says,” New York Times, May 1, 2011 <http://www.nytimes. com/2011/05/02/world/asia/osama-bin-laden-is-killed.html>, accessed January 29, 2017.
  2. Islamic totalitarianism seeks to impose a global regime under sharia (religious law), enveloping the totality of human life and society. The terms “Islamist” and “jihadist” are used interchangeably in this chapter to denote a member of the movement.
  3. Carlotta Gall, “What Pakistan Knew About Bin Laden,” New York Times, March 19, 2014, <http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/23/magazine/what- pakistan-knew-about-bin-laden.html>, accessed January 29, 2017.
  4. U.S. government data for FY2013. <http://foreignassistance.gov/web/ DataView.aspx#DataSetAnchor>.
  5. Pew Global Indicators Database, updated with polling data from 2013 spring survey, <http://www.pewglobal.org/database/indicator/55/survey/15/ response/Enemy/>, N.B., accessed January 29, 2017. The Palestinians are among the highest per-capita recipients of aid. An exception is Israel, a major beneficiary of aid and an ally. But it’s an odd man out for an additional reason: it is also home to a vibrant economy teeming with high- tech startups, and is itself a donor of aid to other nations.
  6. The Nature of Government,” in The Virtue of Selfishness, 108.
  7. Winning the Unwinnable War: America’s Self-Crippled Response to Islamic Totalitarianism (Lexington Books: Lanham, MD, 2009).
  8. Cf. this video which apparently aired on CNN <https://www.youtube. com/watch?v=iNDTpYlR48g>, accessed January 29, 2017. See also, Karim Sadjadpour, Reading Khameini: The World View of Iran’s Most Powerful Leader (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Washington, 2009), v.
  9. Country Reports on Terrorism 2013, U.S. Department of State, <http://www. state.gov/j/ct/rls/crt/2013/224826.htm>, accessed January 29, 2017.
  10. An accounting of Iran’s role in these attacks can be found in Thomas Joscelyn, Iran’s Proxy War Against America (Claremont, CA: Claremont Institute, 2007).
  11. What was widely viewed as the administration’s firmest response came, eventually, more than a week after the upheaval began. To regard Obama’s full statement as even remotely “firm” is to hold a pitiably low standard for what counts as strength. “Text – President’s Press Briefing,” New York Times, June 23, 2009. <http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/23/ us/politics/23text-obama.html>, accessed February 12, 2018.
  12. Peter Schwartz, The Foreign Policy of Self-Interest: A Moral Ideal for America (Irvine, CA: Ayn Rand Institute Press, 2004), 33–34. Saudi Arabia is the illustration offered in Schwartz’s argument.
  13. Ron Moreau, “Where the Jihad Lives Now,” Newsweek, October 20, 2007.
  14. The figure cited is for “security-related” aid only; if “economic-related” aid is counted as well, the figure climbs to approximate $24 billion. “Direct Overt U.S. Aid Appropriations and Military Reimbursements to Pakistan, FY2002-FY2017” prepared by the Congressional Research Service, <https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/pakaid.pdf>, accessed January 29, 2017.
  15. Gall, “What Pakistan Knew About Bin Laden.”
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Elan Journo

Elan Journo is a senior fellow and vice president of content at the Ayn Rand Institute. His books include Illuminating Ayn Rand (2022), Failing to Confront Islamic Totalitarianism: What Went Wrong After 9/11 (2021) and What Justice Demands: America and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (2018). Elan is a senior editor of New Ideal.

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