Representative Ron Paul bases his foreign policy stance on the idea that we must imagine how our adversaries perceive American actions. In a campaign advertisement, a super PAC tied to Paul presents the viewpoint of Iraqi and Afghani individuals toward the United States, and compares that view to the view that Americans would have toward Russian or Chinese troops in Texas. In a recent debate, Representative Paul articulated his golden rule of foreign policy—that the United States should not take any action against foreign countries that we would not wish to be taken by foreign countries against us. This vision of American foreign policy has won widespread support. Atlantic columnist Robert Wright praised Representative Paul’s advertisement, and he writes: “I’ve long thought that the biggest single problem in the world is the failure of ‘moral imagination’—the inability or unwillingness of people to see things from the perspective of people in circumstances different from their own.” Wright is correct in suggesting that many Americans fail to appreciate a foreign perspective. The American response to terrorism often appears incoherent to those who see American bombs and drones striking civilians—innocent people who are considered collateral damage by American foreign policy. Our language supporting democracy rings hollow to those who see American arms propping up authoritarian regimes that support American interests. Though Representative Paul’s position may attempt to remedy what appears to be hypocrisy, the unique position of the United States in world affairs means that this problem is an inevitable outgrowth of American power. The American position in the world requires an activist foreign policy. The danger of looking at foreign policy from the perspective of our adversaries is that we fail to appreciate the unique responsibility of a great power in the international system.
The United States is a global power on a scale unparalleled in the history of the Westphalian state system. Despite the financial crisis, the rise of China and India, and two expensive and unpopular wars, the United States remains firmly ahead of its competitors in material power. The American economy consists of between a fifth and a quarter of the world economy. America is still expected to take the lead in matters such as securing global trade routes and negotiating solutions in border disputes.
Moreover, the United States is frequently asked to take actions that no other country can, and the intervention in Libya is a perfect example. The Arab League and the Libyan National Transitional Council asked for foreign intervention. The Security Council authorized a no-fly zone and civilian protection mission, and the international community turned to the United States, which initially took the lead in the NATO air campaign. When the United States entered Libya, the action may have seemed hypocritical to our adversaries. The United States was bombing a regime it didn’t like, potentially killing civilians in the name of protecting them. Our adversaries, however, knew that the United States had supported regimes with terrible human rights records, for example, in Ethiopia and in Uzbekistan. Opponents of the United States may have asserted that the hypocritical Americans were once again justifying their assaults on civilians and their push for regime change in the name of a greater good. That interpretation, though, is skewed. American actions prevented a potential bloodbath in Benghazi and toppled one of the world’s most repressive regimes. America has many faults, but we did not leave the civilians of Libya to die. In the absence of an activist liberal superpower, America must take action. Certainly America’s historic support for dictatorial regimes is a moral failing, but that failing does not erase our ability to act positively.
History also warns us of the danger of a liberal great power adopting the perspective of its adversary. In the late 1930s, the British Empire was faced with a choice: It could move against Germany after the remilitarization of the Rhine, or it could allow the post-war order to collapse. The British looked at the issue from the German perspective, and found that the Versailles Treaty was unfairly vengeful and that its conditions were onerous. The British, after all, had played a part in the Great War, and seeing from the German viewpoint, they let the Versailles Treaty lapse. The rest is history. Prior to the 1930s, the British had been guilty of great crimes, perpetrated in defense of their Empire, yet Britain’s guilt did not change its tremendous obligation to act. Because Britain was then the world’s greatest power, it was obligated to fight against the Nazi regime.
America’s failure is not that its messages are wrong. Our mission—to make the world safe for freedom and democracy—is noble. Our challenge is living up to that goal everywhere in the world, even when doing so is dangerous to our perceived national interest. Representative Paul would disagree. He argues that such a mission is unsustainable, and he argues that our entanglements abroad will eventually destroy us. Representative Paul has said that the United States should not intervene to prevent genocide if there is no threat to America’s national security. When we see the world through the lens of our adversaries, Ron Paul’s position may make sense, but in my mind this is the greatest possible failure of moral imagination.
Gideon Hanft is a sophomore in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and an editor for the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs' Online Content.