The Perils of Virtue Signaling in Foreign Policy

| August 2017
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Virtue signaling–the practice of issuing statements to demonstrate one’s moral bona fides that is divorced from undertaking a course of action that is likely to bring about the desired outcome–rarely ends in anything positive, particularly in the realm of foreign policy. Virtue signaling assumes that there is always an easily-accessible best course of action and ignores the prudential realist observation, as summed up by Amitai Etzioni, that real-world policymakers rarely are choosing between great options and instead are trying to choose the least worst approach from what is otherwise an undesirable menu of policies. Virtue signaling is part of the larger “morality of intentions” by which many American and Western politicians now operate when it comes to their pronouncements on foreign policy–especially when condemning compromise solutions that require abandoning some of their preferences–and which is used as their immunizing shield to avoid taking responsibility for any of the results.

Nikolaos Van Dam takes center aim at this practice in his assessment of “What the West Got Wrong in Syria.” Van Dam goes after the practice of virtue signaling detached from any willingness to take on the risks and costs of action, noting that

[Western politicians’] moral support did not have any decisive value on the battleground. While they may have cleared their ‘political conscience’ by expressing support for the opposition, they were, in reality, unintentionally contributing to prolonging the war and helping Assad move toward victory.”

Van Dam reiterates a point that is often made, but apparently little heeded, that “in some cases it would have been wiser to do nothing rather than to do the wrong thing with disastrous consequences.” He acknowledges, however, that in a democracy pressures can build up on political leaders to take moral stands, a phenomenon especially true in the United States where the general public has never been particularly comfortable with an amoral Realpolitik approach. However, there is also a political reality that the U.S. public is not interested in paying the costs associated with a true Moralpolitik approach, especially in terms of long-term commitments and interventions. Virtue signaling is a way out of that conundrum: a rhetorical reaffirmation of values that does not bring in its wake real and immediate costs.

Van Dam poses a poignant question: “What should have priority — being morally correct or helping find a solution?” Time and time again, we have seen how an initial solution that is based on moral compromises is rejected, leading to disastrous consequences, only to have that very same morally ambiguous settlement embraced as a moral victory after years of fighting and death and destruction. It took thousands of lives in the Bosnian Civil War for a solution that the U.S. had rejected in 1992–before a single shot had been fired–on the grounds of its anti-democratic nature and use of ethnic criteria to become the cornerstone of the U.S.-developed Dayton Peace Plan in 1995. Similarly, as the war in Syria winds down, the compromise solutions of 2012 rejected because “Assad must go” are likely to serve as the basis for a tenuous settlement later this year. In both cases, the alternative to accepting the moral compromise was to act–and in both cases the U.S. and its partners only engaged in limited activity, enough to raise hopes but not enough to change the on the ground dynamics. As Van Dam concludes, “The West in fact created false expectations and gave the opposition hope for more Western support, which, in the end, was not provided.”

Van Dam offers his assessment in the hopes that “if Western politicians are wondering why they achieved so few of their goals in the Syrian civil war, they should start by examining their own decisions.” That retrospective is unlikely, and the lessons will not be learned.


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