By Dan Twining
The old debates pitting interests against values in American foreign policy fall away in a new era when revisionist authoritarian powers are using sharp power instruments to subvert and weaken democracy in order to build out spheres of influence hostile to American interests. Authoritarians in Beijing and Moscow believe disrupting the democracies – through various combinations of disinformation, misinformation, united-front tactics, corruption, and subversion – is central to their goal of separating America from its allies and undermining the capacity of the United States to project power and influence globally. If our great power competitors understand the contest underway as an ideological one pitting free societies against authoritarian state capitalists, why would we in the United States shy away from describing the challenge in similar terms?
The United States defines our interests with respect to our values as a nation. We seek to promote democracy in the world because we understand that the health of our democracy is predicated on a global balance of power that favors freedom. We support free trade because we believe in the power of markets, not just for our people but in uplifting all people, creating a richer world that is in turn a better market for American businesses. Our most intimate military alliances are with fellow democracies in Europe and Japan, with our mutual security anchored in institutionalized ties between free peoples rather than personalistic ones with strongmen whose whims can change. We define our peer competitors with reference not to their material power – otherwise Germany and Japan would have been adversaries not allies for the past 70 years, and India would be seen as a rising challenger – but with respect to the non-democratic values that make us suspicious of their power, as can be seen with China, Russia, and Iran today.
How should values matter in American foreign policy? One answer to the question is to unpack the primary security risks to the American people today – in no case can hard power alone manage the dangers they pose. The greatest dangers to America emanate from the ideologically driven strategies of Russia and China to weaken our democracy and those of allies and partners; from violent extremism that flourishes in ungoverned spaces and among populations that are politically alienated by poor governance; and from mass migration that threatens to overwhelm our borders and which no wall can contain without addressing root causes that push desperate people to flee their own nations.
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