One of the tropes of the Washington foreign-policy commentariat that I, and I imagine other realists, find most vexing is the tendency to assume that All Good Things Go Together. What is good for Washington is also good, by definition, for all of Washington’s allies, for the spread of freedom, economic growth, and democracy throughout the world, and for a variety of other purposes.
Invading Iraq, we were told, was not just smart for our national-security interests, but it would also be good for Iraqis because it would replace Saddam Hussein with a liberal democracy. This, in turn, would be good for the region because of the salutary effect such an example would have for other people living under other despotic regimes there, which would then have positive effects for the world at large, because, as we all are supposed to understand, the spread of democracy is by definition coextensive with the spread of peace.
Of course, it has not worked out that way. But one sees the same sort of thinking on display almost daily in Washington’s foreign policy debates.
Take, for example, the discussion in this article by Josh Rogin about the WikiLeaked documents involving Georgia, Russia, and the “reset” of U.S.-Russia relations. The central point of the article is this statement by U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Beyrle in June 2009:
A decision to move towards a more robust military relationship with Georgia will imperil our efforts to re-start relations with Russia. Our assessment is that if we say “yes” to a significant military relationship with Tbilisi, Russia will say “no” to any medium-term diminution in tensions, and feel less constrained absent reverting to more active opposition to critical U.S. strategic interests.
Beyrle acknowledges that the Georgian government likely would prefer to be sold arms from the United States, but argues that such a preference is actually in opposition to Georgia’s true interests, because arms sales would make Georgia less safe from Russia, not more:
From our vantage point, a burgeoning military supply relationship with Georgia is more of a liability for Georgia than a benefit. We recognize that our suggested approach would be deeply dissatisfying to Saakashvili, but we see ... no way to neutralize the advantages of geography, size, and capabilities enjoyed by Russia.
The implicit idea here is that Saakashvili is reckless and that arms sales would raise the likelihood of reckless behavior on his part, which would be bad for him, bad for Georgia, and bad for us. In the same article, Samuel Charap, associate director for the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center of for American Progress, agrees and expands on the logic, making two separate (or separable) points:
Instead of the argument of whether we can fulfill this desire of the Georgian government, we have to step back and say “what is the U.S. interest here?” There's no such thing as a military balance or a military deterrent in this case.
And then, more broadly:
The reset protects Georgia because Russia now has a whole lot more to lose. Before, nobody in Moscow was going to think “what will they think in Washington?” because they didn't care. Now they care.
The first point is a breath of fresh air: The question is not whether we can do what a client state wants us to do, but what we should want to do. Amen. But on the second point, if a client state wants us to do something that we’ve decided isn’t in our best interests, then maybe we have conflicting interests and should reassess the relationship, right?
No. Instead we assert that the client state is misperceiving its interests and instead will benefit from our unapologetically pursuing our own interests.
U.S. policymakers in the Obama administration appear to have decided—correctly, in my view—that the marginal benefits to us of somewhat warmer relations with Russia outweigh the potential benefits of policies designed to bring Georgia under the American security umbrella. That is the sort of calculation that they ought to be making, and there is no need to apologize for thinking in those terms.
But neither is there any need to gussy up our perception of our interests as being somehow identical to Georgia’s interests. Were I a Georgian foreign policy adviser, I would be pushing as hard as I could for the U.S. to sell arms, send military advisers, and beef up its diplomatic presence, as well as for NATO to grant a Membership Action Plan for ultimate accession to the Alliance, and every other benefit I could get.
In my view, that’s what the Georgians should be doing, whereas Washington should be opposing all of those policies. We have different interests. In a better world, instead of arguing that America’s interests are the world’s interests, we would simply acknowledge that our interests are not always in the interests of others whom we may wish well. We have every right to our interests, and they have every right to theirs. But the two are not necessarily coextensive.
(Photo by Vladimer Shioshvili)