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‘Rewarding Friends and Punishing Enemies’ Is a Gangster’s Motto, Not a Foreign Policy Rule

Many U.S. clients don't deserve to be rewarded, and in some cases indulging them just encourages them to be reckless and implicates us in their excesses and wrongdoing.

Michael Totten reviews Michael Doran’s Ike’s Gamble and repeats his favorite bad argument:

Eisenhower had no choice but to stop being clever and return to the first rule of foreign policy: reward your friends and punish your enemies [bold mine-DL].

Totten has made this claim before, and I didn’t buy it then and I still don’t. This is not a reliable guide to successful foreign policy, but it does sound a lot like a gangster’s motto. Noah Millman also objected to it at the time:

That’s why when we talk about relations between states, we talk about common interests – indeed, the cliché line (paraphrasing Lord Palmerston) is that states have no permanent friends, only permanent interests. But even that isn’t true. Interests change with changes in circumstances.

Because interests can change with changing circumstances, relationships that were once important may cease to be so, and relationships with other states that were less significant become more so. Regardless, the interests of any two states are bound to diverge some of the time. Our interests and those of states that were previously at odds with us will end up converging on some issues. If “rewarding friends and punishing enemies” really were the first rule of foreign policy, the U.S. would trap itself into rewarding governments that aren’t helping us advance our interests and penalizing governments that could provide us with useful cooperation because the former are deemed “friends” and the others are not. Some of the greatest successes in modern U.S. foreign policy have come from learning how to set past enmity and suspicion aside and make allies or at least partners out of former enemies, which would be hard to do if we were always punishing them because they were our enemies at one time.

Many U.S. clients don’t deserve to be rewarded, and in some cases indulging them just encourages them to be reckless and implicates us in their excesses and wrongdoing. In those cases, clients need to be reined in or cut off all together. Sometimes, it is possible to give adversaries incentives to change some of their behavior for the better. Punitive measures are rarely, if ever, the way to obtain the changes in behavior that Washington desires, and punishing adversaries typically does little except to strengthen the hold of hard-liners in the other government and to make them even more recalcitrant. If a government consistently followed Totten’s “first rule,” it would end up being taken advantage of by its so-called “friends” and confronted by quite a few implacable foes.

The Suez crisis is an interesting test. “Rewarding friends” in that case would have meant tacitly or openly endorsing the illegal invasion of a sovereign state because two allies were the ones doing it. That would have have put the U.S. in the awful position of defending an illegal and aggressive war, and it would have made a mockery of Washington’s objections to the Soviet treatment of Hungary. Siding with the attackers would have been the wrong thing to do, and it would have also been foolish given the options at the time. As it turned out, Egypt did not move into the U.S. camp in the Cold War in the aftermath of the crisis, but it was not a mistake to try to bring them in. In the end, Eisenhower’s “gamble” didn’t cost the U.S. very much, and whatever regrets he may have had later he was right not to indulge the unjustified aggression of U.S. allies.