Principled Foreign Policy

… defining it, of course, is difficult.

Most Arabs I have met have been quick to distinguish between the American people and the American government. That is, while much criticism exists toward American foreign policy, this does not prevent most Arab people from having positive relationships with the American individuals they meet. We, of course, can be the beneficiaries, even in the times we seek to make understandable the policies in question.

Arabs will ask, however, why do the American people allow US foreign policy to go unchecked? There is not a lot of anger behind this question, since they live under governments which take little regard for the will of the people. America, though, is different, and most wish they enjoyed the freedom Americans have to influence national political choices. The solution they propose is that the average American must not know, or be concerned about, what goes on outside US borders, beyond the impact it might have on the American economy.

Fair enough; it may or may not be true. I, however, counter with the idea that while the average American may or may not know the details of the impact of US foreign policy in the nations affected, most are concerned to believe that the US is a force for good in this world. That is, we care about democracy, human rights, and the economic improvement of impoverished areas. As long as US policy can be explained in this light, it can enjoy popular support.

There is now statistical evidence to support my assertion.

The University of Maryland administered a poll surveying American attitudes toward the recent uprisings in the Arab world. 65% believed that increasing democratization in the region would be mostly positive for the United States, and 76% believed it would be so in the long run. Perhaps most telling is the fact that 57% ‘would want to see a country become more democratic, even if this resulted in the country being more likely to oppose U.S. policies.’

It is worthy to note that these opinions focus on the principle – democracy – rather than on the events themselves. Only 51% believed the recent uprisings were likely to lead to increased democracy. Americans can be appreciated for their realism; the outcome in the Arab world is far from clear. Yet the results of this poll demonstrate that we are, at heart, a people that care for the good of the world, even if interpreted through the lens of our own values. Policy makers must determine first and foremost the national interest, but if they fail to convince the people their decision is also beneficial for the foreign nation in question, they are unlikely to win popular support. As the poll suggests, we desire the prioritization of our principles over our interest. Undoubtedly there were many reasons to enter World War I, but the rallying cry was ‘to make the world safe for democracy.’ This sentiment is still pervasive today.

Our reality may not always match our rhetoric, but the fact of our believed benevolence should be noted, both in Washington, and on the Arab street.

2 replies on “Principled Foreign Policy”

I like what you said about American attitude toward recent uprising in the Middle East, but assuming your quote of the Maryland poll is accurate, am troubled by the last part: “… democratization in the region would be most positive for the United States …” As usual, this again comes across as self-interest, and generally the way the rest of the world sees it.


I don’t disagree, but it is appropriate for a nation’s citizens to be self-interested. Why would we desire that which would hurt our country? What I am highlighting is that we also believe democracy is good for the world, and preferable, say, to a dictatorship that unquestionably serves our interests. On the whole, we trust that the people in a democratic system would reflect our principles enough to create a society that is not at odds with us, rather, in fact, would be very positive for us. We desire the win-win, and in this, there is nothing wrong with our self-interest being promoted as well. Of course, I do not say that we understand this all correctly, but our intentions, as a people, are such.


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