I normally agree with Ezra Klein. Not only that, I think he's one of the sharpest commenters out there. So I don't like saying that I think his article on values in foreign policy is just plain wrong. Unfortunately, though, I do.
Ezra starts off with this:
"I have a confession to make: I am not a values voter. I do not want a foreign policy based upon "the idea that is America." I do not think we should be guided in all things by such glittering concepts as liberty, democracy, equality, justice, tolerance, humility, and faith.
In fact, I'm fed up with values. Entirely. They've failed this country. As a lodestar, there is none worse."
He then goes on to make the following points: First, he talks a bit about Anne-Marie Slaughter's new book, which I haven't read and thus cannot comment on. Then, he notes the frequency of various moral terms in Bush's second inaugural, which I think is irrelevant to any interesting point. He notes that concepts like democracy and liberty "do not, themselves, suggest a foreign policy." This is true, but it's also true of any other general concept on which we might seek to base policy. To take this as an objection to basing foreign policy on values implies that we should not base our foreign policy on any general concept at all, since any general concept -- the national interest, democratic values, human rights -- will require some actual thought about how it is to be promoted in a complicated world. The only alternative to basing our foreign policy on something that requires such thought is not to have a coherent foreign policy at all.
Ezra then says that "the language of idealism" enables a style of argument in which one side slams another for not being moral enough to support a given policy whose consequences the slammers have not bothered to understand:
"The language of idealism enabled what my friend Chris Hayes refers to as the "moral blackmail" of the Iraq war: How could anyone who professes to believe in freedom and democracy refuse to devote a couple of tax dollars to freeing the Iraqi people from tyranny?"
Again, this is true of any general basis for foreign policy, since nothing that could serve as such a basis is immune to being advocated by idiots. Compare: "How can you say you care about our national interest when you're not willing to spend a few dollars to gain complete control over Iran's oil reserves by invading it and installing a friendly puppet government that the Iranian people will adore? Huh?" It's even true of what looks like almost no foreign policy at all: a dedication to protecting ourselves from a world we regard as hostile, and with which we refuse to engage. That still requires some actual thought about how to protect ourselves, and leaves us open to what we might call the "self-defense blackmail" argument: How can anyone who professes to want to protect our country refuse to sacrifice a couple of tax dollars to strengthen our version of the Maginot line? How can they say that our plan to build deep-sea platforms from which we can pour molten pitch onto the heads of ocean-going invaders isn't worth it? Don't they care about America??
Ezra ends his article with this:
"What I want is not a foreign policy vision that builds from a foundation of values, but from one of consequences. Whether a policy is concordant with America's view of itself is less important than its likely outcomes. The Paul Wolfowitzes of the world had thought plenty about values and were perfectly capable of discussing their vision of Iraq as a shining city on a Mesopotamian hill. What they hadn't thought about were outcomes -- constraints on our action and capabilities, the likely effects on others' actions of our use of force, etc. Good thing they weren't really pressed on the subject, lest they'd have had to conjure up a postwar plan for a reception that didn't include candy and flowers -- a plan they didn't have. But they weren't questioned, because they were effectively able to keep the conversation focused on values -- do you care about liberty? hate tyranny? believe Arabs can be democratic? -- rather than consequences.
What the Democrats' post-Bush foreign policy vision must do is be able to outlast the Democrats. I have no doubt that President Obama, or President Edwards, or Secretary of State Slaughter can implement a values-based foreign policy I find congenial. What I do fear is what happens when their terms close, and the language that they let Americans remain accustomed to is appropriated by a far more hawkish administration. Much better for Democrats to create a foreign policy framework that a future administration would have to fight against if it wished to revive neoconservatism. Giving them language they can slip right into seems awfully accommodating.
So no more of "the idea that is America." Let's hear the argument that is a wise and sane American foreign policy. Let's hear about conditions for the use of force, and the constraints surrounding it. Let's hear the hardnosed cases for restraint and multilateralism. Don't subsume those points beneath malleable terms like "humility" and "democracy." Popularize the explicit arguments for how American should act. Do that, and our values will be safeguarded, even when their protectors have long since left."
This is the most serious objection, and I'll put my discussion of it below the fold.
The first thing to note about Ezra's argument is that he opposes a foreign policy based on values to a foreign policy based on consequences. These are not, in fact, opposing concepts, and it's not clear why we have to choose among them. On the one hand, if you want to base a foreign polcy on "consequences" and you don't mean by that that you want a foreign policy that has some consequences, any at all, you need to say something about which consequences you are going to try to bring about. Do you want our foreign policy to produce consequences that favor our national interest, for instance? Or perhaps policies that promote the stability of the international order, or our status as global hegemon? Or might you have in mind policies that promote certain values, like respect for human rights, or the ability of people to live decent lives that are, insofar as possible, free from tyranny, oppression, indignity, and want?
Promoting values is not opposed to caring about consequences. Caring about consequences requires an answer to the question, which consequences do you think we should try to bring about?, and among the possible answers to that question are answers that refer to certain values.
Moreover, if one decides to promote certain sorts of consequences, it follows that one ought to care about whether the policies one adopts will in fact promote those values. This is true of a policy based on self-interest: it is not enough to blithely wave the concept of self-interest around while showing no concern at all for whether one's policies will actually promote it. Likewise, if one wants to promote a value like the right of all people to live under governments of their own choosing, it is not enough to say that you're concerned with it, or to drape terms like "freedom" and "democracy" over policies that will, in fact, not promote them at all. You need to adopt policies that actually promote those goals. And the more you actually care about those values, the more obvious that will be, and the less acceptable you will find anyone who uses them as a sort of rhetorical disguise for policies that bear no relation to them at all.
I mean: think about the kinds of values we use in ordinary life. What would we think of someone who claimed to care deeply about kindness and helping others, but was completely unconcerned with the effects his actions actually had on the people he was supposedly being kind to and trying to help -- who talked endlessly about the value of kindness and helpfulness, but only succeeded in making other people worse off and far more miserable than they would have been had he never intervened? I think we would think: he doesn't really care about those things at all, or at least not enough to stop and think about what he's doing. We certainly wouldn't think that this showed that there was something wrong with trying to be kind.
Again, this is true of anything that one might want to base a foreign policy on. If it's an objection to basing foreign policy on values, it's also an objection to basing it on the national interest, or anything else at all.
One difference between values and other sorts of consequences is that on occasion, a concern for values might lead us to think that a given action is just wrong, no matter what consequences it will produce. That is: while our answer to the question 'what sort of consequences should we try to produce?' might be, say, 'securing people's right to live under a government of their own choosing', if we base this on values, and if those values are not consequentialist, then we might find that there are some things that it would be wrong to do even if they helped to secure people's right to live under such governments. If, on the other hand, we adopt straightforward consequentialism, then by definition we should do whatever produces the best consequences. Personally, I quite like the idea that we should not, for instance, launch a first nuclear strike even if we think it would, on balance, produce whatever consequences we favor. It certainly doesn't seem to be a clearcut reason to object to basing foreign policy on values.
Obviously, I am not privy to Ezra's innermost thoughts. But if I had to guess, I'd say that what he's really objecting to isn't values at all, but several other things. First, making foreign policy without thinking clearly about what, exactly, your policy will actually accomplish. Second, defending your policy in terms that are vague enough to accommodate anything, rather than making clear, straightforward, concrete claims about what your policy will actually accomplish, and how. Third, concentrating your arguments not on the concrete results of various policies, but on the motives of the people on various sides. ("Do you care about liberty? hate tyranny? believe Arabs can be democratic?" --Note that the third is a factual claim, not a claim about values. It fits right into Ezra's discussion because his point here is not about values at all; it's about ad hominem attacks on the motives of one's opponents.)
None of these is an objection to basing our foreign policy on values, though. Again, literally anything we might want to base our foreign policy on can be abused in these ways.
The reason I think it matters to be clear about this is that values matter enormously. It matters that we stick up for justice, rather than allowing ourselves to be transformed into the state that disappears and tortures people. It matters that we stand up for decency and fair play, rather than acting like an enormous enraged bully. It matters that we do good rather than evil.
It also matters because if there's one point in Ezra's piece that I think really is specific to values, it's that people can be fooled more easily by an appeal to values than by an appeal to self-interest. It's not that the latter is impossible -- I do not suppose that Dick Cheney was overly concerned with the moral status of our invasion of Iraq, but he and others like him were certainly wrong about our self-interest -- but that the former might be easier. But the answer to this is not to stop talking about values altogether; it's to counter idiotic talk about values with an intelligent appeal to them, and to make the point, as often as it needs to be made, that not only is there nothing about caring about values that requires that you be stupid, caring about values requires that you think hard about what you're doing, and what its results are likely to be. Because the more important you think something is, the more important you should think it is to get it right.
I'd rather live in a country that gave me the confidence that John McCain says he had when he was being tortured in Vietnam: the knowledge that our side would never do anything like what the North Vietnamese were doing to him. I'd rather just know that while our history has its horrors (slavery, Native Americans...), the general arc of it is moral. This does not mean just saying that it is -- on the contrary, it means trying to make it so.
It will take a long time to get back to that point -- a lot of rebuilding the trust and the moral standing that this administration has thrown away -- but it won't take nearly as long as if we don't try at all.