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Flunking Foreign Policy 101

Michael Totten repeats a common misunderstanding (via Sullivan):

Foreign Policy 101 dictates that you reward your friends and punish your enemies [bold mine-DL]. Attempts to get cute and reverse the traditional formula always lead to disaster. Yet Barack Obama thinks if he stiffs his friends, his enemies will become a little less hostile. That’s not how it works, but the Saudis have figured out what Obama is doing and are acting accordingly.

Whatever one thinks of Obama’s foreign policy, it’s not true that the conduct of foreign policy should be guided by the principle of “reward your friends and punish your enemies.” The priority should always be to secure the country’s just interests first, and that may sometimes require reaching agreements with antagonistic states and being at odds with allies and clients on certain issues. It is tempting but misguided to think of international relationships in terms of friendship. States can have productive and cooperative relations, and they can even be allies for many decades, but they aren’t ever really “friends.” Even to the extent that one can say that some U.S. allies are friends of a sort, Saudi Arabia is pretty far removed from that category. Regardless, states have divergent interests, and it would be strange if the U.S. always did exactly what its clients wanted. Sometimes clients are going to be unhappy, and they may throw a fit to express their displeasure, but the truth is usually that clients depend more on the U.S. than vice versa. If it were not so, they probably wouldn’t be clients in the first place.

In this specific case, it is certainly mistaken to assume that doing whatever your clients want will always be consistent with your own country’s interests. If the U.S. is indeed “stiffing” Saudi Arabia in its Syria and Iran policies, that is because the policies that Riyadh would prefer would impose significant costs on the U.S. that our government correctly doesn’t want to pay. The Saudis would like the U.S. to do more to topple the Syrian government and help bring their preferred groups to power, and it would like a less accommodating, more confrontational policy towards Iran, but neither of these is in U.S. interests. It’s one thing for a client or ally to free-ride off of U.S. power, which is already bad enough, and it’s quite another for it to insist that the U.S. pursue more aggressive policies in the region that will impose even greater costs on America. Is the U.S. supposed to give in to the client’s griping just to make it be quiet? Unless the U.S. wants to have its policies dictated to it by its clients, it can’t do that.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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