America Needs A Palmerstonian Foreign Policy

August 24, 2023 Topic: Alliances Region: Eurasia Tags: AlliancesRussiaChinaUkraineIranUnited Kingdom

America Needs A Palmerstonian Foreign Policy

While many in the United States seem to adhere to the idea that other countries are either eternal friends or perpetual enemies, many of America’s own allies think differently.

After Russia invaded Ukaine in February 2022, the United States quickly learned that many of the governments which Washington regarded as allies, partners, or potential partners would not meet American expectations. While many Western governments have joined the United States in sanctioning Russia and arming Ukraine, many others—especially (but not only) those in the Global South—have not done so. Indeed, many have continued to buy Russian oil and trade with Moscow, thus helping support the Russian war effort.

Divergences between the United States and its allies, though, did not just begin with the Ukraine war. Several of America’s allies have been cooperating with some of its adversaries, including Iran, Russia, and China. Western countries bought Russian oil and gas not just before the start of the Russia-Ukraine war, but even after it. There are several countries that have been actively trading with Iran—including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), whose leaders have decried what Emiratis describe as insufficient American protection against Tehran. And not only have many countries throughout the world been unwilling to join either the Trump or Biden administrations in imposing economic sanctions on China, but America’s own robust trade with China has continued, even if through third countries.

This, however, is not a new problem. Indeed, America has had difficulties managing its allies ever since it has had allies. The list includes America’s being at odds with Britian, France, and Israel during the 1956 Suez crisis with Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt; Washington’s difficult relations with French president Charles de Gaulle in the 1960s; Washington’s efforts to navigate the animosity between NATO allies Greece and Turkey, which have been ongoing since before both joined NATO; opposition from France and Germany in particular to the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq that began in 2003; and Israeli and Saudi opposition to the Obama administration working with Britain, France, and Germany (as well as Russia and China) to achieve the 2015 Iranian nuclear accord. Many other such instances could be mentioned.

Whether the problem of so many of America’s allies and partners being at odds with Washington and/or too cozy with America’s adversaries is worse now than before is debatable. What is certain, though, is that it is a very serious problem for the United States today. The real question is: What, if anything, can Washington do about it?

The Contemporary Relevance of Lord Palmerston

The United States, of course, is not the first global great power to experience this problem. It was one that the British Empire also faced even in its heyday in the nineteenth century. One of the leading British statesmen wrestling with it was Lord Palmerston (Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston), who was the dominant figure in shaping British foreign policy from 1830 until his death while serving as prime minister in 1865. It was Palmerston who famously said, “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.” In the same speech to Parliament on March 1, 1848, during which he uttered this dictum, Palmerston set forth several guiding principles about how a great power should conduct foreign policy generally but especially when dealing with allies that do not support it. American foreign policymakers would do well to adopt similar principles.

First, though, something must briefly be said about the context in which Palmerston made his 1848 speech to Parliament. The year 1848 was one of great revolutionary upheaval throughout Europe. It was also a time when conflict and change had been occurring in many other parts of the world, including Asia, the Middle East, and North America. Like now, aggressive Russian military action was a serious concern. On February 23, 1848, another member of parliament—Thomas Anstey—gave a long speech criticizing Palmerston’s policies during his previous stints as foreign secretary (1830-34, 1835-41) as well as his then current one beginning in 1846. Basically, Anstey accused Palmerston of not having done enough to support Britain’s allies or to thwart its adversaries—the type of criticisms that have frequently been leveled against recent American administrations.

It was in response to Anstey’s criticisms that almerston delivered his March speech, which lasted over five hours. Much of it was a detailed refutation of Anstey’s criticisms about Palmerston’s policies regarding a host of events that would take far too long to describe and which many would not see as relevant to America’s contemporary foreign policy concerns. But over the course of the speech, Palmerston made three observations about foreign policy which are particularly relevant to several American foreign policy concerns now.

Alliances Are Not about Friendship but Common Interests

In his speech, Palmerston observed, “As to the romantic notion that nations or Governments are much or permanently influenced by friendships, and God knows what, why, I say that those who maintain those romantic notions, and apply the intercourse of individuals to the intercourse of nations, are indulging in a vain dream. The only thing which makes one Government follow the advice and yield to the counsels of another, is the hope of benefit to accrue from adopting it, or the fear of the consequences of opposing it.”

The modern-day lesson from this which Americans need to draw is that while many governments may genuinely admire the United States for being democratic, they cooperate with the United States in order to get something that they value from it in return—including protection from common enemies. Authoritarian governments, of course, do not need to admire American democracy at all to cooperate with it when they see their interests as being served by doing so. Presidents, cabinet secretaries, and other top foreign policymakers who believe that their own ability to befriend and maintain good relations with foreign leaders are fooling themselves if they think this is the basis of America’s alliances and partnerships. Common interests—which are usually not identical, but convergent—are what underly alliances and partnerships. And what governments see as being in their interests can change.

Don’t Let Allies Determine Our Policies

Later in his speech, Palmerston declared, “I hold with respect to alliances, that England is a Power sufficiently strong, sufficiently powerful, to steer her own course, and not to tie herself as an unnecessary appendage to the policy of any other Government.”

The lesson here is clear: while weaker powers may not be able to avoid going along with the policies of their great power partners, weaker allies must not be allowed to define or limit the foreign policies of great powers. Allowing them to do so risks both involving great powers in conflicts that are more in their allies’ interests than their own, on the one hand, and foregoing opportunities at rapprochements with adversaries that their weaker allies are fearful of on the other. Some of America’s allies—especially those in the Middle East—have seemed to believe that they can or should have a veto over American foreign policy in certain parts of the world. But just as they do not hesitate to pursue their own interests even when these are at odds with America’s, Washington should pursue its own interests even when those interests appear (often incorrectly) to allied governments as being at odds with theirs.

But Be Tolerant When Allies and Partners Disagree with Us

At the end of his speech, Palmerston noted, “When we find other countries marching in the same course, and pursuing the same objects as ourselves, we consider them as our friends, and we think for the moment that we are on the most cordial footing; when we find other countries that take a different view, and thwart us in the object we pursue, it is our duty to make allowance for the different manner in which they may follow out the same objects. It is our duty not to pass too harsh a judgment upon others, because they do not exactly see things in the same light as we see...”

The lesson here is that when allies and partners do not fall in line with U.S. policies (as many have not with regard to Ukraine and Russia), it is important for the United States to exercise tolerance. While many in Washington had gotten used to the idea of India, for example, being a quasi-ally as a result of common concerns about China and membership in the “Quad,” its unwillingness to condemn Russian actions and its buying huge quantities of Russian oil have been disappointing. It is important to understand, though, that the Indian military still relies mainly on Soviet/Russian arms and that India is far more concerned about what it sees as threats from China and Pakistan to itself than Russian actions against Ukraine. Just as India has not let America’s past cooperation with its adversary Pakistan prevent New Delhi from cooperating with Washington now on Asian security issues, the United States should not let India’s cooperation with Russia at present do so either.

While many in the United States seem to adhere to the idea that other countries are either eternal friends or perpetual enemies, many of America’s own allies instead follow the Palmerstonian principle of prioritizing their interests over friendship with the United States. Washington can and should adopt the same approach—not to “teach them a lesson,” but because this approach is sensible. Like its allies, the United States should not refrain from cooperating with its adversaries when Washington deems this to be in American interests. At the same time, the United States should exercise forbearance when its allies do not go along with it even on some important issues so long as there are other important ones where joint cooperation can continue or be achieved. America, in short, needs to pursue a Palmerstonian foreign policy which avoids seeing the world in terms of eternal allies and perpetual enemies, but focuses instead on identifying and reassessing where American interests converge and diverge with those of other governments going forward.