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Values and Foreign Policy

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I had been planning to write a longer post on Ezra Klein’s “anti-values” column from last week, but after reading Hilzoy, I find that I pretty much agree with everything that she says.

Saying that we want a foreign policy of consequences, rather than one of values, doesn’t actually get us anywhere. The only way to differentiate between potential outcomes is through an assessment of values. Moreover, there’s no value-neutral way of coming to such assessments. Even bare bones realism makes some assumptions about the values of policy-makers; they value nationalism over class solidarity, for example. Marxist theories make different assumptions, but both hold that pragmatism has to start somewhere. Now, as Publius notes, Ezra may really be wanting to attack the language of abstract values, in which terms such as “freedom”, “liberty”, etc. can take on pretty much any meaning. I again agree with Hilzoy that, first, we’re giving up something important when we abandon such terms (there’s a reason such arguments can be powerful and persuasive), and second, that tossing the terms aside doesn’t solve the problem. It makes no sense to say “I’m acting pragmatically” if you don’t understand yourself to be working toward some end, and that end can only be determined in the context of values. Tossing aside abstractions associated with American democracy would leave us with “the national interest” which is every bit as nebulous as “freedom”, “democracy”, and “liberty.”

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