The Debate

Trust and US Foreign Policy

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The Debate

Trust and US Foreign Policy

U.S. issues with trust in foreign policy seem closely tied to the difficulty it has grasping the concept of national interest.

On Face the Nation this weekend, host Bob Schieffer asked Henry Kissinger whether the U.S. could really trust Russian President Vladimir Putin to push for the removal of chemical weapons in Syria.

“You can trust the Russians to pursue their own interests,” the elder statesman responded.

It was a brief but revealing exchange.

When dealing with the adversaries like Iran and North Korea, and fierce rivals like China and Russia, the U.S. foreign policy community’s bedrock assumption is that the other side is always trying to dupe the United States. It’s not an unreasonable assumption: in the dirty business that is international relations, lying is one of the least offensive transgressions states commit to secure their interests.

Fortunately, as Kissinger’s response implies, there’s a reasonably reliable barometer for judging whether a state is lying or not; namely, reading John Mearsheimer whether what its leaders are saying is consistent with what they perceive to be their national interest.

Thus, if leaders are pledging to do something that is clearly not in their national interest, one has strong grounds for suspicions. But if they are promising to do something that is clearly consistent with their national interest, it’s probably reasonably safe to believe them. Of course, not all states are entirely rational and in some instances leaders have reasons to conceal what their national interests or capabilities are. Still, in practice these factors are usually not as big of an impediment as they might appear to be in the abstract.

Thus, as Kissinger went on to explain on Face the Nation, the U.S. can probably trust Putin to make a valiant effort to remove Syria’s chemical weapon stockpiles. This is not because he has been “converted to our point of view,” as Kissinger explained, but because removing Syria’s chemical weapons is in Russia’s interest.

Similarly, it would have been reasonable to believe the Iranians when they said they wanted a democratic government in post-Saddam Iraq. This is not because Tehran has an enduring normative commitment to democratic governance, of course. Rather, the Iranians wanted a Shi’a dominated government in Iraq that was weak enough that Tehran could exert influence over it, or at the very least not strong enough to pose a security threat to Iran itself. Given the demographics of Iraq, a democratic government was most likely to produce a government that met these criteria.

Besides foolishly assuming adversaries are always trying to dupe it, the U.S. takes a curious position on trust when dealing with allies and frenemies. Here, the U.S. often trusts countries to act against what they perceive as their national interest.

Nowhere has this been truer than with Pakistan. From 9/11 until the past year or two, the U.S. placed a certain amount of trust in Pakistani leaders to make a faithful effort to crack down on the Taliban and al-Qaeda. It wasn’t clear why Islamabad would do this. American leaders and pundits seemed to believe that the force of their arguments would persuade Pakistani leaders that U.S. and Pakistani interests perfectly overlapped. This failed because it wasn’t true. Al-Qaeda attacked the U.S. on 9/11, not Pakistan, and the circumstances that led Pakistan to support the Taliban in the first place—namely fear of India and a desire for strategic depth—weren’t fundamentally changed by the 9/11 attacks.

Other U.S. leaders and pundits seemed to believe that offering enough aid to Pakistan for a long enough period of time would alter Pakistani leaders’ calculations of their national interests. This argument also not surprisingly failed. After all, Pakistan had clearly shown with its nuclear program that it valued high national security issues more than U.S. aid. In fact, U.S. aid often worked at cross purposes with U.S. goals. For example, it gave Pakistan a strong incentive to not find Osama bin Laden, given America’s past history of quickly withdrawing aid from Pakistan once it achieved its strategic objectives in the region.

The most interesting question, in my mind at least, is why the U.S. struggles so much in trusting others to follow their national interest? Part of it may be that it fails to understand or appreciate what other countries’ national interests are. There is something of a tendency among American pundits to assume that, because a desire for democracy may be universal, that all U.S. interests are universal. There is also a tendency in Washington to assume that because a state is a U.S. adversary or rival, its interests must by definition always be completely opposed to U.S. interests.

Still, I think the larger reason the U.S. doesn’t trust that other states will follow their national interests is because America itself, much more so than other states, has a tendency to not follow its national interest, objectively defined. This isn’t always true, of course, but it has been at key moments.

The immediate aftermath of 9/11 is again telling. After being attacked by radical Sunni Islamists terrorists, one might have assumed the U.S. would align closely with states that also saw radical Sunni Islamists as their natural enemies, while taking a harder line against states that saw them as potential allies.

In fact, the U.S. constructed an axis of evil centered on the only Shi’a government in the region, namely Iran, which had almost gone to war with the Taliban three years prior, as well as a secular Stalinist state led by a dictator who had always seen radical Islamists as a threat to his rule. At the same time, Washington drew closer to Saudi Arabia, a state based on the same radical interpretation of Islam that the 9/11 terrorists (most of whom were Saudi nationals) subscribed to, as well as Pakistan, which had a long history of supporting the Taliban government.  

The U.S. response to the Syrian civil war has been nearly as perplexing. As events there developed, a popular uprising became a bloody, prolonged civil war between Iran and its surrogates on the one hand, and a loose coalition of groups heavily populated by al-Qaeda operatives on the other hand. A cold-hearted calculation of national interest would have led the U.S. to sit back content with allowing these two U.S. adversaries to bleed each other dry.

Instead, the U.S. and its European allies have at times seemed to be the parties most eager to bring the civil war to a conclusion. That they adopted this policy probably makes intuitive sense to most Westerners, however, it must seem quite strange to states accustomed to following their national interests as defined by ends sought rather than means used.