IN THE West Wing episode “The Women of Qumar,” the White House concludes a $1.5 billion arms sale to the fictional country of Qumar on the Persian Gulf in exchange for an extended lease on a base for the U.S. Air Force. C. J. Cregg, the president’s press secretary, is livid about the deal because of the Qumari government’s nasty treatment of women. (The parallel with the conduct of the governments of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain was not terribly subtle.) As a woman herself, Gregg views a close relationship between the United States and an odious regime as utterly unacceptable. In the climatic scene she confronts the president’s national-security adviser, also a woman, about the deal. The national-security adviser justifies the arrangement as strengthening the U.S. military’s position in that part of the world. Gregg will have no part of such an excuse, and she wrings an admission out of her colleague that the military base was not essential; it was merely “convenient.”
That level of justification should never be acceptable in the real world. Yet the evidence is overwhelming that U.S. administrations adopt that standard routinely. The convenience standard for backing corrupt, thuggish rulers is especially worrisome given Washington’s excessively interventionist foreign policy. Indeed, there are many initiatives that are considered necessities within the context of that policy that would come nowhere close to clearing the bar if the United States had a more restrained and cautious policy largely confined to the defense of vital American security interests. While there may be times when, for legitimate security reasons, it is necessary to make ethical compromises, it is nonetheless imperative to establish some standards to determine when a situation warrants making that sacrifice and when it does not. Three factors must be considered. First, how crucial is the U.S. interest at stake? Second, how seriously is that interest threatened? Finally, just how odious is Washington’s prospective partner? The first consideration is the most important, but the others are far from minor.
In determining what kind of interest—security, economic or political—is involved and how important it is to the well being of the American people, it is essential to define the pertinent terms. Unfortunately, that is something U.S. officials often fail to do at all, or at best do in a perfunctory, slipshod fashion. But not all interests are created equal; some are vastly more important than others, and threats to less important ones mandate greater restraint about making ethical compromises.
Determining the nature and level of national interests is a complex exercise, and the following is merely a rough guide to that task. In general, though, interests can (and should) be divided into four broad categories: vital, secondary or conditional, peripheral, and barely relevant . Each category warrants a different level of response from the United States and a different degree of association with potential authoritarian partners.
UNFORTUNATELY, IN both the Cold War and the so-called War on Terror, U.S. leaders have had a tendency to lump almost everything into the “vital interest” category. That is unfortunate on several levels, not the least because such thinking provides a rationale for unnecessarily embracing repulsive regimes. The reality is that for any nation, but especially for the United States, vital interests are few in number. National survival is obviously the most important interest, but the preservation of political independence, domestic liberty and economic well-being from external threats all are part of the mix as well. How secure those vital interests are depends heavily on both the threat environment and the capabilities of the adversary in question.
The United States may be the most secure great power in history. Not only does it benefit from having two vast oceans on its eastern and western flanks, which renders a large-scale conventional attack on the American homeland virtually impossible, but it also has the luxury of dealing with an assortment of weak, and for the most part friendly, neighbors throughout the hemisphere. There is no country that even approaches being a serious military peer competitor in America’s neighborhood. For all the talk of Brazil’s rise, even that country has an enormous distance to go before it could achieve the status of economic peer competitor. In the Western Hemisphere, the United States is, and is likely to remain for the foreseeable future, the utterly dominant strategic and economic player.
Even viewing the security environment on a global basis, it is difficult to identify many credible threats to America’s vital interests. Although there are a handful of rising powers (most notably India and China), the United States still has a sizable economic edge and an enormous military advantage. Moreover, both of those rising powers have a considerable stake in maintaining decent relations with the United States. Indeed, New Delhi’s strategic interests substantially overlap those of Washington. The situation with Beijing is more complex and ambiguous, and there are some issues that could lead to significant bilateral tensions. China’s claim of sovereignty over Taiwan remains a point of conflict, as do Beijing’s expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea. Even so, there are important factors, especially the mutually lucrative trade relationship, that serve to mute those tensions.