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Online Exclusive 05/26/2023 Essay

An Internationalist’s Manifesto: Principles for Statecraft in a Dangerous World

Last September, Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs president, Joel Rosenthal, called for a “compelling new manifesto for responsible internationalism to highlight the moral imperative for international cooperation,”1 recalling the classic dilemma of realism vs. idealism in international affairs.2

Rosenthal cites “responsible internationalism” as “the very idea upon which the UN was founded.” The concept needs greater granularity and implies more than an aspiration for greater international cooperation since what is “responsible” depends on who is defining the term.

While we agree with the general sentiment behind Rosenthal’s responsible internationalism, our own approach to this question is to recognize that any useful principles for international affairs must balance competing impulses of, on the one hand, the often-harsh realities of the world and, on the other, the moral imperatives that drive policy. Put another way, as Reinhold Niebuhr cautioned, we need to balance the twin evils of “sloth” and “pride,” wherein we neither refuse to accept the responsibilities of power nor overestimate our power.3 In a 2016 essay, we offered five principles of what we then called “balanced internationalism” to guide U.S. foreign and security policy.4 In this essay, we revisit some of those more universal principles in the context of what we agree is an even more dangerous world.

The Call

Rosenthal’s vision of “responsible internationalism” stands in stark contrast to what he cites as two emerging visions of international relations that pose existential threats to the stability of an interdependent world. The first threat he cites is “ethnonationalism,” an international order comprised of closed systems, with autocratic regimes demanding allegiance to a culture defined by a particular national, racial, ethnic, or religious identity and protecting that closed system against inherently threatening outside forces. The second threat is a “libertarian, decentralized view” exemplified by hyper-wealthy private sector oligarchs who leverage digital technology to distort public discourse and influence financial markets to garner individual power and wealth.

The first of these visions is state-centered: the state is the arbiter and protector of an exclusively defined national culture. The second is focused on the individual—an amoral version of what Thomas Friedman once called the “super-empowered individual.”5 Paradoxically, these visions are both competing and complementary. The state autocrat portrays her- or himself as the embodiment of that national identity and justifies his or her political power by defining oneself as the essential bulwark against outside enemies. The libertarian oligarch, on the other hand, has contempt for the state except when the state is willing to be an enabler.

These two visions have much in common. First, they are both anti-globalization. Globalization is the connectedness of individuals, societies, and states, in which capital, goods and services, ideas, and people transcend sovereign borders. Because interdependence is its inevitable consequence, autocrats and oligarchs are happy to wield the tools of globalization to their own advantages but reject the notion that they need others to control their destiny. Second, they reject any form of accountability and, hence, the rule of law. This is not to say they are anti-democratic, at least in in name—the edifice of democracy may be convenient for them. For instance, the autocrat could benefit by mobilizing public opinion in culture wars; the oligarch could hide behind legislative cacophony and government paralysis, facilitating their avoidance of accountability. However, the trappings of democracy without accountability and the rule of law is not democracy but a sham.

What makes Rosenthal’s call so urgent is that the autocratic and oligarchic forces he identifies are global phenomena. In the past century, we witnessed the emergence of total war as an instrument of states fueled by ideologies that rejected democratic ideals. Following the Cold War, the number of states that embraced democratic principles grew but then measurably receded. In an international system increasingly dominated by autocrats and oligarchs, there is scant consensus on how states should interact. Can states avoid the specter of total war? Can they manage to address the compelling issues that face every nation, regardless of their values?

The Context

The world is indeed a dangerous place. On one level is the emergence of systemic threats that endanger all of us, including climate change, infectious diseases, financial crises, disruptive technologies, and growing economic disparities. Every state is affected by such issues, and they can only be addressed within a global system. Left unattended, their disruptive effects will be increasingly intense, disproportionately impacting societies least able to cope. Conflict will be more, not less, likely. In this context, vulnerable communities will be increasingly targeted as scapegoats as well as recruiting sources for radicalized non-state terrorist groups. Migration pressures from marginalized communities to more affluent societies that promise greater opportunities and safety will only increase.

The second broad category of danger is more familiar—the return of great power conflict. In the twentieth century, such conflicts spawned two horrific world wars and a cold war. Because of the deterrent effects of nuclear weapons and a world order grounded on an unprecedented alliance between the United States and its democratic partners, the Cold War remained cold. The United Nations relies on the principle of collective security but also affirms the primacy of state sovereignty. Collective security can only function, however, when powerful sovereign states share a desire to limit, manage, or resolve conflict, but that has only rarely been the case. Given rapid changes in technology in the twenty-first century that can be weaponized against societies, as well as a shifting geopolitical landscape, the historical alternative to collective security—balancing power—is more dangerous now than it was before.

Nowhere is this more evident than with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In this case, a nuclear-armed state invaded a neighboring state for the alleged crime of not wanting to be a weak and compliant subject of a Russian sphere of influence but instead yearned to join a community of nations grounded in democratic principles and the rule of law. To date, Russia has been unable to achieve either military or political victory in Ukraine, and Russian society will inevitably suffer in the long-term both demographically and economically. Nonetheless, these consequences seemingly do not matter to the Kremlin any more than the slew of international commitments violated by this aggression. The victims of this war include not only the savage human and physical destruction in Ukraine but extend beyond Ukraine’s borders. The war has caused a massive refugee crisis, global economic disruption, substantial food and energy shortages, and the delicate balancing act of ensuring Ukraine’s survival and restoration without triggering an expanded and potentially apocalyptic conflict.

The reality of this dangerous world is that few can escape the consequences of either persistent systemic challenges or great power conflict, each of which exacerbates the problems of the other.

Core Principles

In his essay, Rosenthal suggests that any manifesto of “responsible internationalism” should begin with the principle that “self-interests are always bound to the interests of others.” Whether one calls it “responsible internationalism” or “balanced internationalism,” it presupposes that states—and people—operate out of self-interest. What matters is how one defines those self-interests. If self-interests are defined broadly so as to recognize that the interests of others are connected to our own interests, then there is potentially a basis for cooperation. On the other hand, if those interests are defined narrowly, focusing only on one’s own individual interests, then a situation is likely to be viewed as a zero-sum game in which any gain by others is automatically assumed to be one’s own loss.

In our view, Rosenthal’s starting principle is indisputable, but it gets us no closer to principles of statecraft that can address the case when others insist only on serving their own interests while rejecting the interests of the international community. In short, while accepting this starting point, we focus instead on core principles of what we earlier called “balanced internationalism” that offer ways to respond to the current challenges.

By “internationalism,” we agree with Rosenthal—the international community has a stake in what happens. Whether one is a fan or a critic of globalization, the reality is that our prosperity depends in large measure on the prosperity of others, and that our security likewise ultimately depends on the security of others. In an interdependent world, there are few real zero-sum games.

By “balanced,” we mean that we must balance the pursuit of objectives with the recognition of the limits of state power, of increasingly constrained resources, and of a finite capacity to shape favorable outcomes. States cannot simply choose between interests and values, between morality and power, or between diplomacy and military force. Values underpin our interests. Morality and power are not opposites; indeed, moral power is arguably the most enduring form of power. Military force is important but cannot achieve its political objectives without diplomacy. In an interdependent world, no one is going to get everything they want. These are pragmatic realities, regardless of whether the issues are war and peace, economic and financial crises, or environmental crises such as climate change.

In advancing this argument, we offer the following three principles for how political leaders should approach our most pressing global challenges.

1. Empathy is the most important strategic virtue; hubris the most dangerous strategic vice.

Security is in the eye of the beholder. If a state is to understand its security environment, it must be able to see that environment through the cultural and political lenses of others, whether adversaries or allies. Empathy does not imply agreement, only an understanding that there are different perspectives. Everyone involved will not share the same assumptions, values, interests, or fears. Others will respond according to their vital interests, not ours.

Following World War II and throughout the Cold War, a handful of largely like-minded allied democracies made the rules for a postwar international order. Today, we live in a world with a growing number of powerful voices that represent an increasingly diverse array of values, interests, priorities, and perspectives. More than ever, we need a genuine understanding of how others define their interests, values, priorities, and limits. Gaining this empathic level of understanding requires sustained wide-ranging diplomatic engagement. Diplomatic relations with allies and adversaries are not a reward; they are a vital necessity.

If empathy is the most important strategic virtue, hubris is the most dangerous strategic vice. It is hubris to project onto others our own values, interests, perspectives, and priorities. Such arrogance is the root of strategic miscalculation—assuming that others will (and should) do what we would do, respond the way we would respond, and for the reasons that we would do so. Hubris not only breeds arrogance and contempt for capabilities of potential adversaries; it also blinds policymakers to the risks of war.

Understanding the roots of disparate strategic interests is the essential antidote to hubris and the prerequisite to making any real progress in addressing the challenges facing us.

2. We cannot insist that others share our worldview as a prerequisite for common action.

A corollary of the importance of empathy in world affairs is to avoid the tendency to define international issues as some Manichean struggle between “liberal” and “illiberal” ideologies. This does not suggest that those of us who are dedicated to democratic principles should be sanguine about those who reject or violate these principles. In all cases we should defend these principles and be prepared to defend those who are threatened because they share these principles. But we should not refuse to engage with those who do not share these values.

Ideological litmus tests are appealing and persuasive because they are simple. Yet, in a world increasingly replete with political polarization that is often grounded in competing cultural values, such litmus tests are a recipe for paralysis. Furthermore, over time, they only reinforce a tendency toward demonization and an unwillingness to acknowledge another’s point of view, hardening polarization. There is no exit from this spiral unless one recognizes that to engage means to listen, to understand, to recognize others’ perspectives for what they are, while still affirming one’s own principles and interests, to refine one’s own arguments as needed, but in all cases to search for common interests to address a problem. Even at the height of the Cold War, the United States and USSR found common ground in avoiding mutual annihilation. Surely, in a world dominated by crises to which we are all vulnerable, one can cultivate shared interests even when the ideological foundations are incompatible.

3. Collaborative partnership—not hierarchical leadership—is key to forging concerted action.

Much of the world—with some obvious exceptions—still looks to the United States to exercise leadership in addressing the complex issues facing our world. The issue is what kind of leadership the United States is able to offer in a world much different than the world of the past century.

American power is not what it was in 1945. Although American power will likely remain preeminent for the foreseeable future, that power is contextual. The United States no longer enjoys the singularly dominant position it once did. It still possesses an unparalleled ability to project influence and to grow its economy, but it has become increasingly vulnerable to the loss of critical resources, to economic shocks across the globe, to epidemics, to cyberattacks from states and criminals alike, to terrorism, and to nuclear annihilation. The lives and livelihoods of U.S. citizens depend on the ability of the country’s leaders to anticipate, shape, promote, and defend against a new set of forces that can affect us over time and in our physical and virtual spaces.

Moreover, the ability of the United States to project its influence in the world increasingly depends on its ability to mobilize allies and partners in any common cause. Whether on issues such as climate change, economic disruption, pandemics, or war and peace, the United States can still “lead,” meaning, it can articulate a vision, take the initiative, and set an agenda for action. However, it can only do so if it is in partnership with others, including those who may not share the same interests or priorities. Partners need to be able to rely on each other, and those who purport to mobilize partnerships into action need to be credible and reliable themselves. The alternative is that allies and partners will explore alternative relationships to secure their interests.

Applying the Principles: The War in Ukraine

One test of the viability of these principles is how they might be applied in dealing with the most pressing geopolitical challenge of our time: Russia’s war against Ukraine. This is becoming a long and devastating war of attrition in which neither “victory” nor “defeat” is imminent. Both Russia and Ukraine have defined war aims that seem unattainable. Neither can afford to concede what the other has demanded and, so far, neither is likely to be in a position to compel acceptance of the other’s demands.

How might the international community facilitate bringing this conflict to some kind of sustainable conclusion? By sustainable, we mean more than a cessation of hostilities with all forces remaining in place but able to continue fighting at discretion. By sustainable, we mean some kind of agreed outcome that—if not resolving all differences—provides incentives not to return to the use of force. Drawing on the principles outlined above, we offer the following conclusions:

Any sustainable resolution of this conflict must serve the security interests not just of Ukraine but also Russia, as well as every other country with a vital interest in shaping a more stable European security order.

Russia’s political leadership is responsible not only for the decision to invade Ukraine but also for the subsequent decisions to target civilians indiscriminately and to inflict massive damage on civilian infrastructure. These are war crimes for which those responsible must be held accountable. Russia cannot be allowed to retain territory occupied by force, since that would likely encourage return to the use of force to occupy more territory not secured in this war. We cannot repeat “Munich.”

Aggressive behavior and a total breach of international norms cannot be rewarded. But neither should we insist on Russia’s unconditional surrender and unharness Western military force to that end. NATO and Ukraine have rightly tried to balance the need to defend Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity without provoking a wider—and potentially apocalyptic—war with Russia.

Putin appears to be calculating that the West will eventually fragment in its support of Ukraine and abandon Kyiv, leaving Kyiv to deal with Putin alone. While the West cannot allow that to happen, it does not mean that Kyiv’s allies should provide a blank check to support Ukraine’s ultimate objectives. In addition to securing the military capability to shape Putin’s calculations about continuing this war, Kyiv and its allies should also be resolute in developing a shared strategy for its resolution.

Like all countries, Russia has legitimate security interests; failure to understand them and find ways to address those interests is a recipe for continued conflict and instability in Europe. This does not mean that the West should accept Putin’s narrative about the inviolability of its self-defined sphere of interest or about Western “encroachment.” Nor does this mean one should accommodate all or even most of Russia’s demands. In the long run, however, a post-Putin Russia should find that it has a legitimate place in a future European security order, although it will surely not look like Putin’s current vision of a desired European security order. Whatever the outcome, it must include incentives to Russia as well as treaty-based guarantees of security for Ukraine and its neighbors, plus the prospect of rebuilding and restoring a Europe in which security is indivisible.

How does Ukraine and its allies get to such an outcome? The answer is through partnership, not “diktat” from great powers. Ukraine and its allies should marry defensive efforts with discussions about a possible eventual negotiated settlement to this conflict. NATO has done well with so-called “two-track” decisions in the past; in this case, it could be to sustain significant military support for Ukraine to improve the realities on the battlefield while preparing for the hard diplomatic realities to come. Moreover, if China, among others, is willing to play a constructive role in such a process, Ukraine and its allies should welcome that. In no case, however, should Ukraine’s allies impose a settlement on Ukraine without its full participation in those deliberations. We cannot repeat “Yalta.”

Rosenthal is correct in insisting that “self-interests are always bound to the interests of others.” Balanced internationalism shows us that this requires empathy in understanding others’ interests. It also means recognizing that—in a diverse world—not everyone will share the same values or interests, nor should we try to compel them to do so. Ultimately, we must remember that to solve the immense challenges facing the world, collaborative partnership is more effective in addressing our shared challenges.

— Dr. Schuyler Foerster and Dr. Ray Raymond

Dr. Schuyler Foerster served as a senior advisor in security in arms control policy during his U.S. Air Force career and has taught at several universities for almost 30 years, including as the Brent Scowcroft Professor for National Security Studies at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he is emeritus professor. A principal at CGST Solutions, he continues to teach in the U.S. and abroad and to publish on international security issues.

Dr. Ray Raymond is a former British Diplomat, emeritus professor of government and history at the State University of New York Stone Ridge, adjunct professor in the Department of Social Sciences at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and adjunct fellow at the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy. He is the author of
Elite Souls: Portraits of Valor in Iraq and Afghanistan, published in 2022 by U.S. Naval Institute Press.