Values and Foreign Policy
[17.11.2007, John O’Sullivan, LECTURES]

Mr. Chairman, distinguished guests.

May I begin by thanking the chairman for his generous words. As President Lyndon Johnson said after a similarly kind introduction: “My father would have enjoyed it and my mother would have believed it.” For my part I shall do my best to live up to it.

Let me also say that I am delighted to be back in Bratislava. This is my third visit to the city in the last decade. It has always impressed me as a delightful city in which the best of the architectural past is preserved in its restored city center. Every time I arrive it seems to be a richer and more lively cultural center.

It is also, of course, the capital of a new Slovak state, independent, prosperous, democratic, and at peace with its neighbors in a landscape of European peace guaranteed by the friendly presence of America. As someone who believes in the possibility and virtue of a civilized nationalism and national identity, I congratulate you and your neighbors on achieving just that and in steadily reducing tensions inherited from the past.

My topic today is “Values and Foreign Policy.” Now, I realize that this organization is dedicated, among other aims, to that of a foreign policy rooted in decent civilized values of liberty and democracy. By the end of this talk, you will see that I see a role for such values in shaping—or, to be more precise, in restraining—foreign policy. Before I get to the end, however, I shall have to point out that conducting a foreign policy that respects such principles is a far more difficult and complex task than it might appear at first sight.


Bismarck once said that he could as well follow conservative principles in crafting a foreign policy as walk through a dense forest with a twelve-foot pole between his teeth. Bismarck was admittedly a cynical practitioner of realpolitik, but he was also an experienced diplomat. And he knew from first hand the difficulties of a foreign policy either with or without principles.

The problem with a principled approach is that the principles are always less clear than they seem. Let us examine one apparently obvious and self-evident principle, generally favored by conservatives, namely, that foreign policy should pursue the national interest. Here the problem is that the national interest is sometimes obscure or clouded.

Was removing the Taliban in America’s national interest? Yes. Did more than a handful of people realize this before September 11th? No. In summer 2001, when I was the editor-in-chief of United Press International, I was fortunate enough to get an interview with Mullah Omar who led the Taliban in Afghanistan from that great foreign correspondent Arnaud de Borchgrave. It was a superb story—an interview with a gathering storm. But I could not interest a single newspaper (outside our regular clientele who received it automatically.) Americans—media, government, and people—were all blissfully ignorant of a major threat to the national interest only three months before it exploded in their most famous city.

Worse than that, the national interest will inevitably be a matter of serious domestic dispute in a multicultural society where the very definition of the nation is uncertain. No European nation with a large Muslim minority is likely to reach agreement easily on what its national interest means in policy towards the Middle East. And the more multicultural the society, the more regions will become highly problematic for European policy-making.

If the national interest turns out to be more complicated than we first thought, what about internationalism? Should our values direct us to sign onto high-minded treating aspiring to outlaw genocide and lesser crimes? Alas, unless carefully thought-out, this approach is likely to have even worse consequences. Western countries in recent years have accepted a legal responsibility to intervene to prevent genocide when it occurs. This seems admirable. But it places an obligation on the signatory nations to risk American (and British, and French, and presumably Slovak) lives for remote causes manifestly unrelated to their interests (and perhaps unforeseen under the original interpretation of the international genocide treaty.) Thus, when the signatory states wish to avoid intervening, as they did in Rwanda, they simply deny that genocide is taking place, adding hypocrisy to callousness. Other rules, such as the prohibitions on the transfer of populations, while understandable as a disincentive to ethnic cleansing, may nonetheless obstruct the resolution of particular disputes. They were probably one factor complicating a settlement of the recent Balkan wars. When all is said and done, almost the only principle that a Bismarck can consistently follow in foreign policy is the rule of prudence. And prudence offers only the most general guidance on how to respond to a particular crisis, its first instruction being to learn about the facts of the case on the ground.

It is the particular circumstances that, in Burke’s words, “give in reality to every political principle, its distinguishing color, and discriminating effect. The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind.” So it is to circumstances that we must now attend.


Let me now direct your attention to the particular circumstances in which the foreign policy of the U.S.—likely to be the predominant international superpower for most of this century at least—must be conducted.

The main facts of the current international situation are in fact modestly encouraging: the U.S. is the single most important power in a world organized largely along lines of national sovereignty and free trade that reflect American interests and values. To be sure, the present structure of world power has many flaws and imperfections. Because international relations are a more or less civilized struggle between independent states (and, increasingly, international agencies), that will always be the case. But the key points are clear.

Economic arrangements in today’s globalized world protect the freedoms to trade and invest that American administrations since Hamilton have regarded as vital American interests. International political institutions are too weak and dependent upon U.S. goodwill to reduce U.S. sovereignty significantly unless American themselves pursue this course. And the U.S. has built up a network of alliances and bases that give it the strategic dominance to protect its interests throughout the world.

The current structure of world power thus embodies free trade, national sovereignty and U.S. strategic predominance. These are interests well worth defending. Hence a world order that embodies them is well worth defending too.

Yet this international order is threatened. Everyone seems to agree on that point even though they disagree violently about the nature of the threats. Liberals and social democrats tell us that today’s main threats to national and international security are novel ones such as world poverty, AIDS, and climate change.

This is high-sounding nonsense. There are perfectly good reasons for seeking to cure these ills: namely, that it is better for people to live long healthy lives in a pleasant environment rather than short nasty ones in deserts or swamps. For these things to be threats to our security rather than simply social or natural evils, however, there would have to be serious powers seeking deliberately to worsen world poverty, spread AIDS, or heat up the world’s climate in order to conquer or intimidate us (as in a James Bond movie.) In fact, apart from a few hysterical leftists who believe the U.S. is guilty of these crimes, everyone supports international cooperation to solve them.

But people reasonably differ on the technicalities of how to do so, or on the level of resources that should be devoted to each problem, or even on the nature of some of the problems. No doubt these disputes will be resolved over time, after which poverty, AIDS and climate change will be dealt with. Whether or not that happens, neither these ills nor dissension among governments over them amount to security threats. The campaign to discuss them under that heading is essentially an attempt by the Left to divert resources from foreign and defense spending to its favored social programs.

That might not matter overmuch if genuine and/or traditional security threats did not exist, as the Clinton administration sometimes seemed to think in the nineties. Unfortunately, as the leading power of the international order, the U.S. is likely to face at least three major threats in coming decades:

1. Islamist terrorism,
2. A power-grab by “transnational progressives” in international institutions, and
3. The rise of new powers, notably China, with different political and economic traditions.

Together with such international trends as the demographic decline of Europe and Russia and the spread of Muslim immigration, these three challenges are likely to bring about massive change in the international order. And all three have America in their sights.

A. Islamist terrorism seeks to convert or destroy America. It regards America as the Great Satan and thus the main obstacle to the re-establishment of a world-wide Islamic caliphate.

These ambitions are extravagant. It is unlikely that jihadists will defeat an U.S. army, occupy America, and make Islam the federal religion. But according to the security experts, terrorists could one day destroy an American city with a weapon of mass destruction. Islamists are already weakening America’s allies in Europe by a blend of immigration and cultural subversion. And they are gaining in strength and recruits as the U.S. seems to falter and show a lack of resolve in Iraq.

Even if they are unlikely to gain their main objective, jihadists might succeed in undermining American prestige, isolating the U.S. internationally, disrupting U.S. trade and investment, and occasionally inflicting costly loss of life through terror.

B. Trans-national progressives seek to bind America as the Lilliputians bound Gulliver. International civil servants and officials in NGOs—who together constitute the trans-national progressives or “tranzis”—generally regard the U.S. as overly powerful and seek to constrain its actions in various ways. These include bringing U.S. military interventions under the purview of the International Criminal Court, regulating its carbon emissions under the Kyoto agreement, and making European Union regulations the “gold standard” for international economic regulation (thus effectively forcing U.S. manufacturers to conform to EU rules.)

Such actions are part of a general assault by the “tranzis” on national sovereignty and the Westphalian order of nation-states. Since democracy is rooted in the nation-state—and thus far only in the nation-state—a secondary effect of this trend is to transfer power from democracies to non-accountable international agencies largely controlled by the tranzis.

Though the UN and its agencies have been their main base until recently, the EU is an increasingly important source of tranzi influence—and an increasingly self-conscious ideological rival to the U.S. In general EU leaders and strategists see the EU as new post-modern form of agency of governance—part federal state, part supra-national structure—in which citizens with multiple identities navigate its overlapping sovereignties under the protection of international law and with the help of “civil society” non-governmental organizations. On this view nation-states—of which the U.S. is the strongest and most effective—are inferior and declining elements in this new international structure. They discriminate undesirably between citizens and non-citizens in conferring rights. And their role in protecting those rights has been superseded by international legal agencies and NGOs.

The EU sees its role as to extend this post-modern system of authority at the expense of nation-states. It seeks to overcome the resistance of those states to international rules. And when resistance is the result of democratic debate and election in liberal democracies, it argues that international rules should take precedence over “local” laws. At present, for instance, the EU is currently discussing a proposal that EU foreign ministers should launch a worldwide campaign for the prohibition of the death penalty. But those American states that retain the death penalty—not all do—have reached that decision after long democratic argument. Why should their opinion be overturned by an alliance of foreign governments or, worse, by global bodies accountable to no voters whatsoever.

C. China seeks to rival America. China’s challenge to the U.S., though likely to be formidable, is the most traditional one and so the threat most amenable to orthodox deterrence and diplomacy. China seeks to be an Asian and world superpower and to exercise its hegemony over its near-abroad. That will nudge it into conflict with the U.S., in particular over Taiwan, but the importance of America as a market for Chinese goods will likely postpone any actual clash for a long time and perhaps indefinitely.

To contain China within an Asian balance of power, the U.S. has quietly forged new alliances with Vietnam and India while keeping its relationship with Japan in good repair. At the same time Washington has recently upgraded its economic relationship with Beijing—there have been high-level visits from the U.S. Treasury Secretary there—in order to manage any disputes before they get out of hand.


The inter-relationships between these different challenges produce some interesting results—and not always discouraging ones.

For instance, both China and India are likely allies for the U.S. against Islamist terrorism. India’s hostility to terrorism is well-known. Both the U.S. and the war on terror are more popular there than in other country including America itself. But China also has Islamist factions. If Islamist radicalism grows there, it will provide Beijing with a further reason for maintaining good Sino-American relations and for cooperating with U.S. intelligence and police agencies in the war on terror.

That would take place against a background of growing Chinese and Indian prosperity and influence. Several estimates suggest that China, India and the U.S. will between them account—and account roughly equally—for three-quarters of world GDP by mid-century. Such estimates should be treated cautiously. But if they are even half-right, then both Asian powers will exercise growing influence in world politics and international bodies.

As new superpowers exercising their new political clout, they will be very reluctant to sign onto the large tranzi project of chipping away at national sovereignty. They have already refused to sign onto such important tranzi projects as Kyoto and the ICC. They are likely to resist the EU campaign for an end to the death penalty. They have suffered greatly from the EU’s practice of using regulatory standards as a disguised form of protectionism.

Except on issues where their specific interests dictate otherwise, they will probably drift towards informal support for U.S. resistance to the tranzi power-grab.

As the spiritual home of the tranzi project, Europe will lose influence from these developments. But it will enjoy declining influence in any event. The same estimates that show China rising to 25 per cent of world GDP show Europe falling to about ten per cent.

Indeed, Europe will be hit on two fronts: in addition to losing international political clout, Europe will suffer from internal upheavals as the growing Muslim minorities exercise their new political influence. They will seek to sway foreign policy, of course; it will become increasingly difficult for European governments to support the U.S. openly on Middle Eastern policy or the war on terror (though intelligence and police cooperation will continue discreetly.) But they will also shift domestic policy on such questions as abortion, gay rights, the death penalty, etc.

Until now the EU has been the leading proponent in UN conferences and other international venues of these new moral “rights” (e.g. an international “reproductive right” to abortion). As Muslim influence grows, the tranzis may find that their European base for such policies disappears under their feet.

It is Russia, however, that faces the most ominous future. Blighted by a demographic collapse, governed by kleptocrats, still economically backward, beneficiary at present of high energy prices but a hostage to future price changes, relying on Muslims for a quarter of its troops, and separated from a growing China by a disputed border, Russia faces apparently insuperable problems. And if it were to fall into chaos that would both embolden the jihadists and expose Europe to further risks.

In contrast America has ample room to maneuver within and between these challenges and contradictions. To do so successfully, however, its policy must be rooted in three things: a reputation for winning, a less utopian version of democracy promotion, and reliable allies.


Let us at this point grasp the nettle of Iraq. Winning is important. It frightens enemies and heartens friends. And there is no reason to assume that the U.S. has lost the struggle in Iraq and every reason not to lose by surrendering prematurely.

American troops, U.S. allies in the Coalition, and the Iraqi government together constitute the strongest military and political force in Iraq. The “surge” (and the change of tactics by U.S. and Coalition forces) is working. The Sunni insurgency is gradually winding down—even Osama bin Laden himself recently admitted that in a video. And signs of genuine and productive political horse-trading between all factions—Kurd, Sunni, and Shia—are emerging in Baghdad.

If the U.S. has the stomach to maintain a substantial military presence in Iraq for another decade, there is no doubt that a stable pro-American and democratic Iraqi government would remain in power and eventually be able to sustain itself without external help. The problem, as in Vietnam, is on the home front.

If domestic U.S. pressures were to force Washington to scale down and withdraw U.S. troops over the next two or three years, the outcome is much less knowable. But a reasonable speculation is that we face four possible long-term outcomes, two broadly favorable and two unfavorable.

They are:

    (a) A quarrelsome but largely stable Sunni-Shia coalition government, formally democratic and allied to the U.S., that controls Iraq but that for many years has to fight a weak and sporadic jihadist insurgency.
    (b) A Shia majority government—elected democratically, constantly tempted towards sectarian repression, but restrained by the human rights concerns of its American ally—that has to fight a strong and widespread Sunni insurgency supported by neighboring governments.
    (c) An authoritarian Shia government, allied to Iran, that emerges from the chaos and civil war following an American withdrawal and that, in an alliance of convenience with the Kurds, quickly crushes any remaining Sunni resistance.
    (d) A permanent civil war between Sunni and Shia, both supported by neighboring regimes, that informally partitions Iraq into different regions where warlords, terrorist groups, and tribal leaders rule under what is, at best, a weak central government and from which the Kurds opt out under U.S. protection.

In the event of either (a) or (b) but especially (a), the U.S. would be in a strong position in the Middle East. It would have prevailed, albeit after great travails, and kept its enemies at bay. Lebanese democracy would probably survive; the other Arab states would have to take greater heed of U.S. policy; and the neighboring crises in Iran and Afghanistan would become easier to handle.

In the event of (c) and (d), Iran, Syria and their terrorist allies would dominate the region in the medium term with appalling but unforeseeable circumstances. The U.S. would restore its local position over time, as it did after Vietnam, but doing so would costly in several ways. It would require a larger military build-up than otherwise. It would have to spend valuable resources to recover lost ground—probably in Iraq itself because of its strategic importance. And it would have to be more ruthless in gaining its objectives.

The less your enemies fear you, the greater the blow you must strike to get their attention. So one paradoxical effect of an Iraqi defeat and withdrawal might be the greater likelihood of a military strike against Iran.

The good news at present—and that might change—is that the most likely outcome in Iraq is something between (a) and (b). In addition, if America’s European allies are prepared to give stronger support to a tough negotiating stance with Iran, then military action to destroy or set back its nuclearization program may well become unnecessary.


Whatever its outcome, Iraq has raised the bar for future military interventions by the U.S. This is a political fact irrespective of whether it really follows from the Iraqi experience. It will be only marginally influenced by what kind of government eventually emerges in Baghdad. And this fact will itself influence the broader policy of promoting democracy.

If the military muscle of the U.S. is less available to support it, that policy will have to be both more cautious and more dependent on local political forces. It will have to become a policy of encouraging liberty and liberal institutions in current autocracies rather than promoting democracy (since the second inevitably threatens the existing ruler directly.) It will have to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

This more modest version of the “democracy project” is probably desirable and perhaps necessary for other reasons. It meets America’s major needs if not always its highest ambitions. It seeks to improve the life of Arab and Islamic societies so that they cease to be the breeding grounds of terrorism. It does not put Washington at odds with friendly regimes (though it will create tensions with them). And it is consistent with a policy of opening up markets and freeing trade since liberalism connects economic to civil and political freedoms and reinforces all of them.

A bolder policy of planting democracy in other cultures, on the other hand, is a form of liberal imperialism that is likely either to fail or to require the U.S. to be a presence for several generations as a tutor. Individual Americans would have to live and work in Iraq and other evolving democracies for their entire working lives. Nineteenth-century Britons were prepared to do that; twenty-first-century Americans are not.

Lest I be accused of wisdom after the event, let me quote what I wrote in National Review almost three years ago:

    If promoting an abstract democracy is U.S. policy, then we become adversaries of those states — Jordan, for instance — that are relatively liberal autocracies and U.S. allies. Friendly encouragement to move in a democratic direction, however, is perfectly compatible with a policy of extending the blessings of liberty. It is also the approach that dovetails best with American interests in the region. Leaning on the Saudis to liberalize their semi-totalitarian society similarly makes better sense than to urge a premature democratization likely to produce an extreme fundamentalist anti-American government. As a general rule, indeed, extending liberty is less likely to threaten stability and bring Islamo-fascists to power than directly promoting democracy.

After all (and despite some rhetorical excesses by neo-conservatives), the U.S. is not a revolutionary power that seeks to impose its own system of government on other countries. If it were, it would not be pursuing a policy that could be described as conservative in any sense or under any American tradition. The U.S. Navy in the Second World War outlined a genuinely conservative approach when it warned sailors visiting foreign ports that they would encounter many things that struck them as strange and repulsive but went on: “The principle we are fighting for in this war is “Live and let live.” As a status quo power, America must exhibit this modesty in its attitude to other states and its own democratizing approach. It is in relation to global institutions that the democracy project is most urgently needed—as part of a wider program of reform. First, multilateral agencies, in particular the UN, need to become both more efficient and more accountable. Second, we should be skeptical and restrictive in our attitude to changes that would damage U.S. interests such as the Law of the Sea. Above all, however, America’s interest in extending democracy is most legitimate at this global level where it should seek to rein in the trans-nationalist elites and subject them to the control of democratic national governments. One important reform in that direction would be to remove from the UN bureaucracy and its NGO hangers-on their role in setting a political agenda for the world through the device of UN conferences on various “rights.” Another would be to establish a democratic bloc within the UN. A third might be to put more weight behind the Community of Democracies, founded less than a decade ago, to act as either an alternative to the UN, or more likely as a ginger group within it. The COD might usefully agitate for the kind of reforms that would strengthen both democracy and “the democracies” in global bodies.


Whether fighting the war on terror or containing China, the U.S. needs allies. These are tasks that cannot be accomplished alone. But what allies—and what kind of alliance—should the U.S. seek? There are broadly four choices:

    1. Coalitions of the willing. Given that the premise is the need for allies, the option of pure isolationism does not really exist. But those nervous of permanent or “entangling” alliances will tend to choose coalitions of the willing. These are ad hoc alliances, defined and determined by the mission. Their members share three characteristics: they share the same risk analysis; they have useful resources; and they are willing to act. John Bolton’s Proliferation Security Initiative, one of the Bush administration’s most useful foreign policy innovations, was a good example. It has no permanent secretariat; it imposes no restraint on the sovereignty of its members; and it lapses into inactivity when there is no evidence of contraband WMDs. Coalitions of this kind are extremely useful, but there is no reason they cannot be organized inside more formal alliance structures. Indeed, the phrase “coalitions of the willing” originated in NATO to deal with missions of which not all member-states approved. And they work more easily if the coalition members are used to working with each other and have compatible equipment. Thus, they are a useful arrow in America’s quiver of military relationships, but probably not the whole thing.
    2. Continentalism. A hemispheric alliance or EU-style economic union for the Americas is a recurring illusion of the American Right. As 9/11 showed, there is no underlying sympathy in Latin America for the U.S. and its diplomatic stance in world politics that would be necessary for such an alliance to work. Almost no Latin American country was prepared to join America’s military effort after 9/11. The economic fashion for “neo-liberalism” on the Reagan-Thatcher model was brief and has been followed by financial and political instability in Argentina, Mexico, Venezuela, and elsewhere. There are some success stories, Chile famously. But even in these cases better economic performance on the U.S. free-market model and better trade relations with the U.S. have not been accompanied by significantly closer diplomatic positions, let alone hints of a military alliance. And there are negative signs elsewhere in the sub-continent. President Hugo Chavez in Venezuala is extending the life of revolutionary Castroism at the very time that Castro is dying. He is also forging links with Iran and other Islamists in an avowedly anti-U.S. alliance. Since the U.S. now has millions of immigrants from Central and Latin America, this makes uncontrolled and illegal immigration a serious national security risk.
    3. Our European Allies. Even among those in NATO, U.S. allies range from genuine and active friends of the U.S. (Britain, Poland) to outright anti-Americans and neutralists (Spain). Muslim immigration is weakening their attachment to the U.S. Most were weak to start with since their addiction to welfare states has reduced their defense spending to less than three percent of GDP. And a whirlwind of anti-Americanism is roaring through Europe, sometimes encouraged by governments as a way of building a European “identity”. The U.S. cannot afford to dispense with the European allies, however. Though weakening, they represent some of the world’s largest economies and some of its most efficient armed forces. If the alliance is to continue to be effective, however, the U.S. must radically change its policies towards Europe. It should cease to encourage European political unity which is now an engine of anti-Americanism, especially in defense. It should be prepared to divide pro-American states from anti-American ones. It should cultivate the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe which, for good historical reasons, have a better appreciation of the need to retain the U.S. in Europe. And it should seek to detach the British from their growing involvement in European military integration since this puts at risk the close integration between U.S. and British military forces. Above all, it should launch a campaign to combat anti-Americanism equal to the CIA campaign against communism in the 1940s and 1950s. For some time, however, the U.S. must expect to be disappointed by the performance of its NATO allies. Changing this will be a long task.
    4. That leaves the embryonic alliance that has emerged in the last few years between the countries of the English-speaking world or “the Anglo-sphere”. The U.S., Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and recently even Canada have cooperated in Afghanistan and Iraq. That cooperation builds on long relationships—the Aussies fought in every American war in the twentieth century (and on the same side too). And the U.S. has recently begun to forge a new military and diplomatic alliance with India. This new “coalition of the willing” works well because the cultural similarity between its peoples ensures that they see the world in roughly the same way. Ideally, the Anglo-sphere would function as a subsidiary alliance to NATO if the older alliance recovers its spirit. If not, then it could form the basis for U.S. policy towards terrorism, the containment of China, and even as a balance towards the anti-Americanism of a separatist Europe. For that to happen, however, the British would have to be weaned off the Europeanism to which the U.S. has been directing them since 1950.


Which alliance the U.S. chooses—and it will probably choose a mix of all four with Europe and the Anglosphere predominating—will naturally influence its foreign policy. Consider how the wartime alliance of the Anglo-Americans with Stalin pushed them into policies of appeasing communism, lying about Katyn, and sacrificing weaker allies to the USSR. It forced them in fact to deny and outrage their deepest instincts and values—and even to abandon the very cause of Polish liberty on which World War Two had been launched. Policy-making in an alliance context becomes a dialogue between one’s own interests and values and those of the ally. If the values of the ally are barbarian ones, then it will be hard to avoid one’s own values being compromised.

But where do our own values come from? They emerge from the political and moral traditions of the nation itself. A tradition is a sort of national disposition. In the case of America and the countries of the wider Anglosphere the main tradition is that of “ordered liberty” associated with the conservative Whiggery of Burke, Adam Smith, and the Declaration of Independence. European political traditions, while having a place for liberty, give greater stress to ideas of central authority and substantive equality. Thus, liberalism and conservatism in the English-speaking world both tend to be somewhat different from the same traditions on the continent—but not so different as to be incompatible.

If knowledge of a tradition may us to predict the general drift of a nation’s foreign policy, however, it cannot give us a ready-made one. It offers no simple and clear guidance about what to do in a particular crisis or to meet a particular threat. After all, isolationists sometimes favor intervention—Pat Buchanan was a firm Cold Warrior—and interventionists shrink from those involvements they think too risky. There will often be disagreement about the nature and direction of the nation’s main tradition. Indeed, there are competing traditions within any one nation such as the Wilsonian, Jeffersonian, Hamiltonian, and Jacksonian traditions in U.S. foreign policy. Thus, in his recent book “Dangerous Nation,” Robert Kagan delves into history to demonstrate that America’s tradition is one of ideologically-driven interventionism rather than one of isolationism. His critics, such as David Gordon in the American Conservative, retort that it is Kagan’s interpretation that is ideologically driven, distorting the historical record to justify future interventions. All these factors will render a principled foreign policy not perhaps impossible, but certainly something to be hammered out on the anvil of circumstances.

We may go slightly further than that, however, and argue that even though a tradition will often remain dumb when we ask it what to do, it will protest very loudly when we propose to do something incompatible with its root values. Appeasement of Hitler was an example of realpolitik that was just about compatible with Britain’s liberal traditions. An alliance with Hitler against the Soviet Union, however advantageous, would have aroused deep national opposition and invited rejection. Traditions in foreign policy are like moral intuitions in personal life—they are more reliable as warnings against vice than useful as guides to virtue. But that can still be a signal service.

Finally, we have already examined above how in foreign policy we necessarily have to meet, negotiate, and compromise with people whose approach is shaped by very different national or cultural traditions such as an Islamic tradition. When we are dealing with allies, however, this necessity becomes an opportunity to combine our skills and virtues. Europe and America might in theory combine “hard power” and “soft power,” military troops and NGOs, democratic idealism and prudential diplomacy, in a joint political strategy. But this trade will only succeed if both sides make equal contributions to the common cause. The U.S. at present sees a Europe that is a free rider on American defense spending without contributing anything of equal weight in return.

Central and Eastern Europe, because of their recent history, have a better understanding than their Western neighbors both of America’s complaints and of its strategic intentions. It would be a useful example of values in foreign policy if they would say so more loudly in Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Rome and London.

John O’Sullivan is a journalist, former special adviser to the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the author of the book The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister.

John O'Sullivan is Editor-in-Chief of the prestigious magazine, The National Interest, and a senior Fellow at the Nixon Center. Prior to this, he was the Editor-in-Chief of United Press International. He also serves as Editor-at-Large of National Review.

The lecture was presented in Bratislava on November 9, 2007. More information on event is available here.

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