The character of a nation shapes its foreign policy. Ideas, values, and how nations organize themselves matter. They establish the parameters of what is desirable and what is acceptable. A U.S. foreign policy that did not reflect the principles upon which the American republic was founded, for example, would be both unsustainable and undesirable.
But what this means in practice is not always clear. To simply say that we ought to pursue a “values-based” foreign policy is meaningless. In fact, the very term “values” is an empty term, a vessel to be filled by whatever one deems important or necessary or fashionable.
The key debate is thus on what to put in the term. The progressive Left has a clear view of what values are. United against Trump or simply rigid in its ideological beliefs, the Left is content to argue for a foreign policy that favors, among much else, open borders, transnationalism, and the advancement of an expansive interpretation of human rights (given to us not by our Creator, but products of our individual preferences). There is no need to debate whether these goals are feasible or desirable because, so the progressive thinking goes, we (or at least the few, more sophisticated among us) know the telos of history and have reached it. Foreign policy must be a reflection of the imperatives of progress.
The right side of the political spectrum is intellectually more lively, and divided, on foreign policy. But the Wilsonian bacillus continues to circulate there too, especially when it comes to the promotion of liberal democracy. History, it seems, is marching forward, increasing the number of human rights and erasing boundaries among nations. Thus it would be wrong, if not futile, to oppose the wave of history in order to preserve the traditional foundations of political order — family, nation, and religion. The result is a foreign policy of expansive goals while, unsurprisingly, resources remain limited. In this vision, the United States as a polity is a means to achieve global progress and to implement “universal” (liberal) values. But there is nothing truly conservative in such a vision. The purpose of U.S. foreign policy is to protect first and foremost the American nation, the families and friends that compose it, and the ties of tradition and religion that bind them together. The pursuit of universal progress may be at most an ancillary goal, and even then it cannot mean the universal and uniform imposition of “values” defined by unbridled individual preferences.
Another way to put this is that a truly conservative foreign policy has to begin from a recognition of the limits of what is feasible as well as of what is desirable.
The former is defined by the nature of the geopolitical environment. For instance, the U.S.’s rivals (China and Russia in particular) are unlikely to accept liberal-democratic principles anytime soon, setting up the conditions for a long-term confrontation that we cannot wish away. At the same time, many of our allies (e.g., Hungary) have particular articulations of democratic governance that do not perfectly match a liberal political model. The world is not a passive matter waiting to be imprinted by whatever the U.S. determines to be appropriate for mankind. A conservative sentiment begins from an acceptance of the limits of one’s own power.
Deep cleavages are written in the history of nations. Many in the West thought that these differences could be overcome by restating the universal applicability of the liberal political model (while also fundamentally redefining family and marriage). If democracy was a universal aspiration, then — the hope was — it would take root in distant lands, bringing individual freedom and political stability. The world was thus converging, with hiccups but still with inexorable determination, into something resembling a Kantian “perpetual peace” among satisfied individuals.
But this belief, born out of the abstractions of the Enlightenment and given an extra impetus by the heady Western victory over Communism, has met its geopolitical limits. Broadly, liberal democracy is not what everyone values and wants. The Arab world may not want democracy, only some sort of justice from perceived historical slights and, in some cases, the spread of Islam and the building of a new caliphate. Russia will have a hard time becoming a democracy because the longing to rebuild a lost empire trumps the desire to have multiple viable parties; the aspiration for imperial grandeur will not vanish even in an improbable semi-democratic post-Putin regime. China’s middle class, while growing in numbers and in wealth, may be content to trade political participation for stability, access to new markets, and prestige drawn from imperial expansion. Democracy and the other political principles that are at the foundation of the United States are unlikely to take root in our rival powers, and therefore cannot be the solution to international competition and conflict. Democracy, that is, has reached its geopolitical limits. The annus mirabilis of 1989 will not be repeated.
The fact that we have rivals is in itself a symptom of the limits of liberal appeal. Great-power competition, indeed any international competition, is a clash not merely of material forces but of ideas and beliefs. Ideological differences have never disappeared, and only our naïve faith that there were no viable alternatives to the liberal way of life has allowed us to imagine an ideological convergence of the world. But the world did not converge. Our rivals do not just oppose our economic or military strength, but are hostile to the principles that underwrite our political order. We may hope that this will change, but hope is not a strategy.
The geopolitical limits of the liberal democratic model are also visible, albeit to a much lesser and different degree, within the Western alliance. Political liberty has various national expressions, many of which will not match ours (and certainly will not match the progressive vision). Some states may have a tradition of a tight connection between political life and religious faith; some may be more accepting of a strong leadership, respectful of the law but not a coequal of other branches of government; some are protective of their national way of life and may oppose the progressive definition of human rights as the satisfaction of self-preferences. In brief, to be legitimate and thus lasting, democracies must take particular national expressions. Universality is not uniformity; ordered liberty requires a pluralism of political forms.
A conservative foreign policy ought to recognize the legitimacy of these particular national expressions of liberty and not push for a uniform form of domestic political order. Calling some U.S. allies (e.g., Hungary or Poland) “illiberal” is therefore not only analytically useless but also strategically dangerous. Because our allies are one of the greatest assets we have in the world, giving us an enormous strategic advantage over our rivals, we have to be careful in how we treat them. We have to nurture them, but we should not expect them to become uniform in their domestic political arrangements. When the U.S. government pushes policies to reverse what the progressive worldview deems not in alignment with its interpretation of liberal democracy (e.g., insisting on the introduction of certain progressive rights, or supporting groups opposed to the democratically elected governments), we end up undermining the strength of these allies. Instead of building resilience in these countries, we exacerbate their internal divisions and put in doubt the legitimacy of the existing domestic order, creating conditions ripe for further nefarious external interference.
In the previous two decades, our allies had few options but to accept our will, whatever it may have been. Now they have the enticing alternative of receiving support from our rivals, such as China and Russia. In a situation of enhanced great-power competition, some allies may choose to seek backing from our rivals in order to avoid U.S. pressure that goes against their national will. It is not surprising that Putin has become a vocal opponent of the most progressive rights (e.g., same-sex marriage), offering himself as an alternative to the Western Left. Every time a U.S. embassy flies an LGTBQ Pride flag in, say, Budapest or Skopje, it creates a huge opening for Putin.
Imposing a uniform format of liberal democracy is not a strategy of strengthening our alliances; on the contrary, it risks weakening the Western alliance at the very moment we need it the most. We have to be very careful not to advocate a solution that not every nation can accept.
The world, thus, imposes real limits of what is feasible to promote abroad. But there are even more important limits, defined by us.
A conservative foreign policy has to recognize that there are limits to our domestic consensus on “values.” We have deep internal disagreements on the substance to put into this term. For instance, we diverge on fundamental questions of life, marriage, and death. We can discuss and vote on them as citizens within an ordered republic, but we do an enormous disservice when we pursue an activist foreign policy driven by an expansive view of rights. A polity that internally does not agree on the existence and meaning of many rights should not promote only one version of these values abroad.
Pushing controversial values abroad weakens our national security. Not only does it turn our allies and other states against us, opening windows of opportunity for our rivals, but it also severs U.S. foreign policy from the support of a large, if not the largest, segment of the American electorate. As a result, it weakens the long-term sustainability of the strategy and, most important, puts in question its legitimacy. A conservative foreign policy, in other words, has to reflect the limits of what we, as a nation, agree upon.
Moreover, the limits of what is desirable to promote abroad are drawn by truth, elucidated by reason and inlayed in tradition. There is nothing conservative in promoting a wholesale reengineering of society abroad as well as at home by undermining the key institutions that underwrite political order. Political order is not kept by a law or a Constitution, however important those are. It arises slowly from within the nation, united and ordered by its foundational institutions — family, friends, churches. To redefine family and marriage as the satisfaction of self-preferences — a flagship objective of the progressive Left — both in the United States and abroad is a recipe for large-scale geopolitical instability, a goal that is antithetical to U.S. interests.
None of this means that the U.S. should withdraw from the world. To the contrary, the U.S.’s presence in Eurasia is indispensable to keep our rivals in check and sustain our security. And we should continue to advocate for truly unalienable rights: Nobody deserves to be killed by a tyrannical regime, tortured by a psychopathic leader, or eliminated simply because they were deemed to be undesirable. Similarly, the continued deportation and imprisonment of Uighurs by the Chinese regime and the beating of peaceful protesters in Moscow or Hong Kong are clear violations of liberty. We should condemn them and impose costs on these brutal regimes.
But let’s draw the line well before we get to values that are not universally appealing and whose elastic definitions weaken our reputation and undermine our national security.
Editor’s Note: This piece is an expanded version of a paper presented at a Reagan Institute meeting.