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Value-driven Foreign Policy in Times of Realism and Polarization:

U.S. Leadership and the Russian Invasion of Ukraine

- by Holger Janusch

- original article here


With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, realism appears to be dictating the rules of the game in world politics again. As Stephen Walt writes: “We are back in a world that realism explains best, one where great powers compete for power and influence and others adapt as best they can”. Following realist arguments, since the end of the Cold War, the United States have been in the superior position of foregoing a realist foreign policy, but that is now taking its revenge. This revenge manifests itself not only in a new proxy war between great powers in Ukraine, but most notably the rise of China as a hegemonic challenger. Realists argue that the United States would be well advised to forego a value-driven foreign policy and pursue a realist strategy. According to John Mearsheimer, it was the value-driven foreign policy of Western democracies to turn Ukraine into a Western country by offering a membership in NATO and the EU that led to the war in Ukraine. However, this view is misleading for several reasons.

First, it is absurd or naive to think that Russia would not have invaded Ukraine when the NATO and the EU would not have considered Ukraine’s membership. It is more likely that this would have happened anyway, if not earlier. One only has to take Putin at his word in denying the Ukrainian people the right to self-determination.

Second, the network of reliable alliances around the globe is one of the United States’ most important security assets. To argue realistically: it is in their national interest. But the reliability of these alliances is based not only on security concerns—to balance threats—but also on shared values.

Third, the war in Ukraine underscores the importance of values and vision in leading and building coalitions. This is evident first and foremost in Ukraine’s normative leadership. The solidarity between democracies expressed in the broad support by the EU and NATO members for Ukraine is rooted in shared values: the right to self-determination and freedom of the people. After the Trump presidency where U.S. leadership lacked a normative compass, the Biden administration was able to renew its normative leadership in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The realists warn against a values-driven U.S. foreign policy. They are right when it takes on missionary tendencies (e.g., the Iraq war) or when it leads to a rigid dichotomy of democracy versus autocracy. But the answer is not a realistic foreign policy: such a foreign policy denies the possibility of social change in world politics. Moreover, a U.S. foreign policy guided solely by realist calculation rather than values would weaken the reliability of its alliances and thus U.S. security.

To avoid the missionary failures of the past, values-based foreign policy and genuine leadership require a clear vision. As I argue with the idea of Communicative Power America, such a vision must include self-restraint in the use of power and critical self-reflection on one’s own values. Self-restraint and self-reflection guarantee that future U.S. foreign policies respect the right of self-determination of other countries and their peoples, which is the normative core of U.S. leadership. To be effective, such a vision must be seen by other countries as sincere and genuine. For this to be the case, the vision must emerge from a national consensus. The United States itself must believe in such a vision and adhere to its values. The “battle for the soul of the nation”, as U.S. President Joe Biden calls it, is not only about the state of American democracy, but also about U.S. leadership in the world. Normative leadership relies on trustworthiness and genuine belief in one’s own core values. However, political polarization in the United States, and especially autocratic tendencies in the Republican Party undermine the normative basis for U.S. leadership in the world.

At first glance, despite all the polarization, there appears to be a bipartisan consensus in the Congress and among the public about the right foreign policy toward Russia and China. With right-wing Republicans endorsed by Trump in particular questioning continued support for Ukraine, their poor performance in the midterm elections reinforces the impression of a bipartisan consensus. However, the bipartisan consensus on foreign policy reinforces self-versus-other thinking and enemy images, which raises the risk of future war. A values-based vision based on self-restraint and self-reflection can prevent this danger, but U.S. foreign policy lacks a clear vision. Despite bipartisan consensus on specific policies toward Russia and China, the rift over a normative vision for U.S. grand strategy is much deeper. Consensus on a vision for U.S. leadership in the world, while difficult to achieve in an era of a divided America, can also help overcome that division. The Biden administration and congressional leadership should not only propose and deliberate on normative visions for U.S. grand strategy in the 21st century, but also engage civil society in efforts to build consensus.


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