The hardest call regarding a moral balancing act occurs when secondary interests are at stake. U.S. leaders can and should take a firm position against acquiring unsavory partners when only peripheral interests are involved—much less when the issue is barely relevant. Conversely, as noted earlier, the defense of vital interests sometimes requires making painful moral compromises. The defense of secondary interests, however, constitutes a grey area, and it is in that situation that judgment calls about the severity of the moral deficiency of a potential ally take on special importance. There are instances in which the balance may tilt in favor of establishing or maintaining a cooperative relationship with a morally defective ally.
At some point, though, the repulsive quality of a security partner is so bad that nothing except thwarting a serious threat to vital American interests can justify a close working relationship. Only repelling such a threat could possibly warrant backing the likes of Mobutu, the Guatemalan military dictators or even Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. That Washington supported such partners—often enthusiastically—even though far milder interests were at stake was an especially damning indictment of U.S. policy.
U.S. leaders sometimes seem inclined to make similar, casual compromises of fundamental American values in the campaign against radical Islamic terrorism. That is unfortunate for two reasons. On a practical level, crawling into bed with the likes of the Saudi royal family or the Pakistani military leadership risks incurring serious blowback from angry populations. Indeed, Washington’s willingness to back such corrupt and brutal elites provides fodder for the very terrorist movements we seek to neutralize.
But beyond the practical foreign policy and security considerations, those kinds of relationships create a moral rot within America’s own polity. It is not merely hypocritical; it is destructive to America’s values and sense of self-worth to betray fundamental principles for anything less than compelling reasons. The most practical way to minimize the temptation to back clients needlessly, and incurring the likely unpleasant consequences, is to adopt a policy of ethical pragmatism. That approach recognizes that world affairs are not akin to a fairy tale with easy moral lessons and preordained happy endings. Instead, world conditions require that the United States be flexible and practical in its conduct of foreign policy. But there is a great deal of territory between adopting cynical, Machiavellian practices and adhering to starry-eyed idealism that cannot work in the real world. The self-proclaimed realism of a Henry Kissinger leans too far toward the first pole, while the policy preferences of pacifist organizations tilt too far toward the second.
Ethical pragmatism endeavors to strike a balance between the extremes of those two approaches. It accepts the need for some dilution of moral standards in the conduct of foreign policy—but only if the American interests at stake are sufficiently important, the threat to those interests is serious and the compromise of values is not excessive, given the circumstances. Admittedly, all of that is dependent on the subjective judgment of policymakers, with all their human frailties. But ethical pragmatism at least provides some guidance for officials as they make their decisions. It guards against an “anything goes” mentality that needlessly sacrifices important principles. Applying such a standard might well have prevented the United States from engaging in some embarrassing, and at times shameful, actions during the Cold War and its aftermath. Developing and applying that standard holds the promise of minimizing the danger of such behavior in the future. C. J. Cregg was on to something.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at The National Interest, is the author of ten books and more than six hundred articles on international affairs. His latest book, coauthored with Malou Innocent, is Perilous Partners: The Benefits and Pitfalls of America’s Alliances with Authoritarian Regimes (Cato Institute, 2015).
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