Foreign Policy Realism In A Fallen World

Oct 3rd, 2020 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

Fundamental to the Christian worldview is that we live in a fallen, broken world.  Sin and rebellion against God are the defining characteristics of this dark world over which Satan rules (2 Corinthians 4:4).  The modern nation-state, in terms of world history, is a relatively new development on the world scene.  Vast world empires ruled by a single king or dictator are not a major aspect of our 2020 world.  Instead, the world is made up of competing nation-states—competing for power, for natural resources, for trade routes, and for influence.  Knowing these realities and knowing the biblical truths about fallenness, how does a nation-state formulate its foreign policy?

At the end of World War II, as the Cold War between the US and the USSR ensued, the US found itself in a position of world leadership it had never known before.  The US began to remake the world through a system of international organizations and alliances to provide security, economic stability, monetary stability and world peace (e.g., the United Nations, NATO, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank).  But what would be our policy towards international communism, centered in the USSR and later in Communist China?  Most influential in answering this question was George Kennan, who formulated the policy of containment—that the US would not seek to overthrow communist regimes; rather, it would seek to contain communism, not permitting it to spread.  This policy informed decisions that led, for example, to the US role in the Korean War and the Vietnam War.  But it was Hans Morgenthau, who provided “the intellectual scaffolding for America’s foreign policy.”  [Morgenthau, a Jew who had escaped from Nazi Germany, served on the faculty of major American universities from 1937-1980.]  His most important book, which influenced several generations of foreign policy leaders, was Politics Among Nations, which he published in 1948.  For some, Morgenthau is considered the “founding father of the entire modern study of international affairs.”

As Barry Gewen has demonstrated, there are two schools of thought in foreign affairs:

  1. The idealist school adheres to a commitment to abstract, universal values, common to people everywhere.  [In America, it is democracy and freedom.]  According to the idealist view, world peace will come when everyone accepts these values.  This was the perspective advocated by Woodrow Wilson after World War I and by Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s.
  2. The realist school sees history as a story of people in all places and at all times striving for power.  This was Morgenthau’s positon: He argued that “Human nature has not changed since the classical philosophy of China, India and Greece.  Thus, the job of a statesman is providing security for his/her country in the face of this unending struggle.  Summarizing Morgenthau, “Good intentions by themselves, without power behind them, could do nothing and might make matters worse.”  Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler at the 1938 Munich conference illustrates this perfectly.  Morgenthau believed that statesmen must look at the world as it is—“in all its tragic ugliness”— not how they wish it would be.  Effective statesmen must make “a sharp distinction between the desirable and the possible—between what is desirable everywhere and at all times and what is possible under the concrete circumstances of time and place.”  Winston Churchill demonstrated this for Morgenthau:  “He committed fewer errors in international affairs than any of his contemporaries.”

Morgenthau built the framework for realism in foreign affairs.  Summarizing Morgenthau, Gewen writes that “”World government was an impossibility under the present arrangement of sovereign nation states, which meant that peaceful conditions could be maintained only by accepting the existence of rivals on the international stage and balancing national power against national power, strength against strength.  Leaders who understood this also understood that the national interests of adversaries had to be respected if war was to be avoided . . . One had to learn to live with one’s enemies—to live with tragedy and evil.”  “Prudence” was one of Morgenthau’s favorite terms, for he saw pursuing the “national interest” as a call for “restraint in foreign policy, an understanding of the real meaning of power and the limits of force.”  The value of Morgenthau today is that his thinking provides a middle position between the isolationist who is suspicious of any foreign entanglement and the idealist who sees the mission of America to convert the world to democracy.  He provides a framework for pursing the national security of a nation in light of the fallenness of humanity and the brokenness of this world.

With the Morgenthau comments as the context, how do we evaluate the recent agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)?  Brokered to some extent by the United States, the agreement calls for both nations to establish full normalization of diplomatic relations in exchange for the Jewish state of Israel forgoing, for now, any annexation of the West Bank.  Among other things, it is imperative to remember that Israel and the Sunni Islamic UAE share a common enemy—the Islamic Shiite nation of Iran.  It was therefore in the national interest of both nations to agree to this new arrangement.  What are the potential effects of this “geopolitical earthquake” (in the words of Thomas Friedman)?

  1. It alters the political dynamic for the Palestinian Authority.  In the words of Friedman, “it stripped [Mahmoud Abbas, PA leader] of his biggest ace in the hole—the idea that the [Persian] Gulf Arabs would normalize with Israel only after the Israelis satisfied the demands of the Palestinian Authority with a state of its liking.”  Will this cause Abbas to return to the negotiating table?
  2. The agreement might cause other Gulf states (e.g., Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia) to also recognize Israel.  The UAE will now begin to benefit from Israel’s financial capital, as well as its cybertechnology, agricultural technology and health care technology.  The deal also benefits Jordan’s King Abdullah, who feared that Israel’s annexation of the West Bank would further radicalize the Palestinians, causing instability within Jordan.
  3. The major geopolitical losers in this deal are Iran and its lackeys (i.e., Hezbollah in Lebanon, Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, Hamas in Gaza, the Houthis in Yemen and Turkey).  The UAE is telling Iran and it lackeys, “There are really two coalitions in the region today—those who want to let the future bury the past or those who want to let the past keep burying the future.”  Under Iran, the Shiites have been fighting the Arab Sunnis in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Syria—all to project Iran’s power.  In Friedman’s words, “Iran’s clerical leadership has become the largest facilitator of state failure in the Middle East—including its own. . . .”

Hans Morgenthau offers prudent counsel in how we think about international affairs and how we construct a viable foreign policy.  Recognizing the ugliness and fallenness of humanity is a given for the Christian worldview.  Morgenthau crafts that middling position between the isolationist and the idealist.  The decision by Israel and the UAE to alter their futures reflects what Morgenthau called “prudence.”  It also evidences God’s incredible grace in the midst of this chaotic, unsettled world.

See Barry Gewen’s essay on Morgenthau in the New York Times Book Review (5 July 2020) and Thomas Friedman in the New York Times (14 August 2020).

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