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Why We Should Prioritize American Interests Above Our Values In Foreign Policy


The latest dustup in the world of foreign policy gurus occurred when a memo written to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson by Brian Hook, an influential policy aide, was leaked to Politico. The memo was written in May 2017, weeks after Tillerson made a speech where he called for the United States to balance the pursuit of our values overseas with our interests.

“It’s really important that all of us understand the difference between policy and values,” Tillerson said.

In the controversial memo, Hook outlines foreign policy basics—the difference between realism and idealism—and seems to call for a major shift to a more realist foreign policy: “Allies should be treated differently—and better—than adversaries. Otherwise, we end up with more adversaries, and fewer allies.” Hook also says America should stop “badgering” allies on issues such as democracy, the rule of law, or human rights.

To back up his argument, Hook turned to history. According to the memo, foreign policy idealists have harmed American interests, such as when Jimmy Carter didn’t fully support U.S. allies like the shah of Iran. Today, Hook feels that in the age of a rising China and widespread terror in the Middle East, there is even “less optimism … that the world can be reshaped simply by expressing American liberal values.”

How to Promote Human Rights

Because of this, Hook says the Trump administration should tout human rights primarily as a means to attack “Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran.” This is because “pressing those regimes on human rights is one way to impose costs, apply counter-pressure, and regain the initiative from them strategically.”

Many, including Tom Malinowski, a former Obama administration State Department official, took issue with Hook’s Machiavellian worldview for doing “exactly what Russian and Chinese propaganda says we do—use[ing] human rights as a weapon to beat up our adversaries while letting ourselves and our allies off the hook.”

“He utterly misses the elemental fact that America’s moral authority is one of our main advantages in the world, and that it would disappear if we apply it as selectively as he advises,” said Malinowski. Malinowski also disagreed with Hook’s reading of history. According to Politico, Malinowski argued that anti-Americanism in Iran started long before Carter, due to American intervention in Iran and support for the regime that followed.

What History Teaches Us

The Central Intelligence Agency-backed overthrow of democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mosaddegh in 1953, and our support for Iran’s brutal shah (who had a secret police force that made the East German Stasi look humane in comparison), is instructive in what to make of all this. Malinowski is right that this led to anti-American resentment that culminated in the Iranian Revolution and hostage crisis.

But the real lesson is that we should have never overthrown Iran’s democratically elected government in the first place. We intervened because of “interests,” but these interests were not vital to America. After ousting an elected government, the more we tried to support the shah’s regime in spite of our values and vital interests, the more harm we did in the long term. Hook is misguided to not see the real lesson that the history of Iran—and more recent examples of American intervention—should be teaching us.

That doesn’t make Malinowski’s liberal idealism right either, however. Based on our values, Obama’s administration felt that Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi was a bad guy and needed to be taken out, so he ordered American air-power to help in that process. But the outcome was a Libya that was a haven for terrorists and a humanitarian disaster.

That Doesn’t Mean Better Intervention Is the Answer

On the other side of the same coin, too many liberal hegemonialists (those who favor aggressively using our military to spread our values) mistakenly believe the lesson from Libya is that American troops should have filled the void on the ground. If only this were done, this crowd believes that liberal democracy could have taken root.

Aside from ignoring the limits of our ability to remake a society such as Libya’s in our own image, there is another problem with this worldview. By meddling in the internal affairs of other countries and getting involved in ongoing conflicts primarily for the sake of our values—at great cost to U.S. taxpayers and soldiers—we not only act outside of our interests, but are also eventually forced to compromise on the very values that led us into the conflict.

History provides many examples of this. In South Vietnam, we had to support Ngo Dinh Diem’s corrupt and repressive regime—until we had him killed—and the regimes of the out-of-touch and corrupt generals who ruled in his place. In the end, the lack of public support for South Vietnam’s government doomed our mission to failure.

George W. Bush had to support the dictatorship of Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan, along with a few other dictators, due to our involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. Barack Obama supported the coup against Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, only to eventually (while reluctantly) back—through assistance including military aid—a more brutal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

The Third, More Principled, Option

America’s vital interests will always take priority over our values. Think of our alliance with Joseph Stalin during World War II. That’s why all presidents, even idealists, have refrained from hammering allies with talk about our values—because our interests outweigh them. But selectively using values as a weapon against those we don’t like reduces our values to nothingness.

Equally damaging is when Washington enters no-win situations, in conflicts that don’t involve our vital interests, where we must choose between the lesser of two evils. Here, we often end up supporting—with money, weapons, and maybe even our own troops—those who don’t share our values.

In the most recent example, the Trump administration has decided to arm Ukraine with anti-tank missiles. Not only does this conflict fall outside of our vital interests, but the current government in Kiev is just as prone to corruption, abuse, and autocracy as was the previous government that America helped to replace. We must ask ourselves, are we really helping the chances of a western-style democracy in Ukraine when we back a regime that is abhorrent to our values?

Fortunately, there is a third way. It would allow our foreign policy to be guided by our interests, and allow our values to be championed universally, not selectively, by defending our liberty at home and serving as a “shining city on a hill,” as President Reagan famously championed.

Following this third way means we follow the Constitution and make Congress debate and vote before we go to war. It also means that policymakers realize the limits of American power and prioritize threats to American security. This would be a significant break from post-Cold War foreign policy, but it would make America safer, more prosperous, more effective, and would properly value U.S. taxpayers and the lives of those who serve in our armed forces.