Principles and Interests

Principles and Interests

Mini Teaser: In a volatile region of the world like South Asia, principled realism, not sloganeering, should guide U.S. policy.

by Author(s): Chuck Hagel

At first, the Bush Administration tried to opt out of the Middle East. For the first two years of the Bush Administration, we took a hands-off approach to the Israeli-Palestinian issue: "When you're ready for peace, come talk to us." This latest issue is now, "We may talk to Iran, but that will only be in the context of Iraq." Well, that doesn't make any sense to me. What's the point? Who are we penalizing here? We've got a mess in Iraq, we've got a mess in the Middle East, we've got a mess with the Israeli-Palestinian issue, we've got a very dangerous situation in Iran. So how do we think we're going to get out of it, and how are we going to put this all back together in some positive track that is rational and responsible?

The Indians, the Pakistanis, the global community of nations, they all want some resolution to the Iranian issues--but they also want the United States to demonstrate leadership. Yes, the United Nations is a framework and a forum; the IAEA will play a critical role. But the United States cannot stand on the sidelines and outsource to the Europeans and say "We're all together on this." I still think it is critical that the United States talk directly to Iran.

TNI: You have called for American foreign policy to be guided by "a principled realism."

CH: Foreign policy is no different than any policy that deals with real life as it is. Rarely do you have easy choices to make or easy decisions to make--they are always imperfect and they are not always obvious. Foreign policy requires both a certain amount of vision and of realism.

Principle has to be the anchor, there's no question about that. This country has stood for and believed in certain things since the founding of our Republic. At the same time, we must be realistic in appreciating that fact that we cannot impose our values, our standards, our way of life, our government on other nations of the world just simply because we think that our system is better or somehow we are more virtuous. That may be the case, but the reality is that it won't work--and it never has worked.

So we have to be wise in how we work our way in choosing our foreign policy options. We want to have influence. We want to influence outcomes in countries where there are dictators, where people are without opportunities and freedom, where there is despair. We want to help change that. But we start with the fact that there is a centerpiece of reality in how you do that. Every country is different, every country has a different history, a different culture, a different background, and all of that has to be factored in. If you do not begin with this assessment, you're going to end up with a very wobbly and sometimes dangerous policy that will cost the nation and make the world more unstable.

Let's take Pakistan. It is very easy, from Washington, to be quite critical of the Musharraf government. We don't live in that dangerous part of the world, so it's easy for us to dismiss the problems of Musharraf or to not understand the depth of Musharraf's problems. Musharraf rides a very unpredictable tiger every day, every hour, every minute. And yet we expect things out of that relationship, we expect things out of him.

We have to appreciate the realism demonstrated by Ronald Reagan. It is not a choice between giving up your principles or giving in to someone else's agenda. Foreign policy must be grounded in our values, what we believe, what has formed and shaped us as a nation. You work outward from that. But you must have a very clear understanding of the reality of the world as it is--and the dynamics of that reality--before you can frame and successfully implement policy.

The Honorable Chuck Hagel (R) is a United States senator from Nebraska.

Essay Types: Essay