America’s Big Choice

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By: Andrew Jarocki

As the world rang in 2020, America found itself in an overseas drama indicative of the great foreign policy challenge of the coming decade. No, it had nothing to do with the usual annoyances that dominate headlines. Far from Tehran and Pyongyang, an American diplomat created an uproar in Zambia when he criticized the ruling of a local judge. Ambassador Daniel Foote publicly stated he was “horrified” that two men were sentenced to fifteen years of prison for homosexuality. The president of deeply conservative Zambia declared that his country did not want “such people” and made clear it would not work with Foote. The US soon recalled the ambassador.

It would be easy to dismiss Zambia as a backwater with little strategic importance. However, the episode perfectly symbolized a fundamental struggle between values and interests that is increasingly difficult to ignore. Modern America would view criminalizing homosexuality as barbaric, but the US swallowed criticism to maintain a working relationship with a foreign partner. Diplomacy with different societies always requires a delicate balance. However, the coming era of renewed “great power competition” with Russia and China will force the US into even harder choices between enforcing the values it prefers and achieving strategic priorities.

A quick scan of the globe reveals this tension confronts America everywhere, with deadlines for a tough choice arriving soon. Finishing the costly war in Afghanistan and redirecting resources elsewhere most likely requires some sort of agreement with the Taliban (and trust in their promises to let girls stay in school this time). Persuading Turkey to remain a reliable NATO member will likely require limiting criticism of President Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies. Vietnam continues to imprison journalists and India slips further into state-encouraged sectarian violence, but America must decide if there is any human rights offense grievous enough to justify angering key partners for countering China. 

China, above all the others, will force America’s hand in the choice between values and interests. Besides a few proposed sanctions on individuals, the global reaction to state-run Uighur imprisonment camps was a relatively muted bark and no bite. As the world’s second largest economy grows even more influential, will the US really be able to sanction its number one trading partner? Likewise, the Hong Kong protests have also demonstrated the increasing difficulty of reprimanding China without hurting American interests. Police injured unarmed protestors and besieged universities, but President Trump was deeply careful to keep trade negotiations separate from any mention of Hong Kong. China will only grow more impatient.

Entering the new decade, America must deprioritize some values abroad as it separates the “needs” from “wants” on the list of foreign policy goals. However, America also cannot lose sight of the values which are the core of its identity and sometimes are themselves strategic interests. The U.S. must explicitly decide which values are nonnegotiable for both the American interest and conscience. When should the U.S. hold and when should it fold?

One value to hold: expression. America must continue to protect freedom of expression around the globe for both conscientious and pragmatic reasons. The right to private and public expression is threatened by technology like never before in history.  Facial recognition cameras, coupled with artificial intelligence, have enabled autocratic regimes to monitor citizens in ways even George Orwell couldn’t have imagined. These tactics aren’t simply some other nation’s problem. The introduction of 5G networks will introduce “smart lampposts,” interlinked cameras (including your smart doorbell) and more voice-activated assistants (hello, Alexa!) into the everyday lives of Americans. In a hyper-connected and constantly recording world, a malicious foreign actor will find these tools useful for watching and pressuring their own citizens and Americans alike

America must commit itself fully to working with partners throughout the world to enshrine expression rights on technology platforms and encourage private sector innovations to counter invasive technology. This relies on a vibrant domestic research university system that resists the temptation to exclude international talent. America can’t retreat from the world on this matter, but rather must work with it to stem the tide of aggressions against freedom and privacy. Otherwise, Saudi Arabia’s murder of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi will become all too common as regimes expertly use technology to track, harass and quiet anyone. This column goes so far as to even suggest that allies and foes alike that transgress on expression rights should be met with sanctions or withdrawn aid.

Speaking of the Saudis, one value to fold is clear: “perfect friends.” It is true that countering a rising China will require cooperating with imperfect partners. Drawing down Middle Eastern commitments to focus elsewhere requires accepting regimes (at least in the short term) that would not be invited to an ACLU luncheon. Can everything be simple realpolitik? No. After the Holocaust, the promise of “never again” means that the U.S. can’t justify cooperation with human rights abusers on a massive scale. However, multilateral issues like nuclear proliferation or environmental issues justify a pause in criticism while the U.S. works with China and Russia. When one or both prove threatening to other interests, the U.S. will shift to other partners (including the imperfect ones like Turkey, India, or Vietnam). 

The US is between a rock and a hard place in many situations, but inaction is undeniably the worst option. The nation must once again have clarity as to the purpose of its foreign policy. Foreign policy is not charity, but rather the means of securing the nation’s safety and critical interests. American foreign policy must decide which values rise to that priority level, and which are desirable but secondary hopes. Many observers were quick to criticize the NBA after the basketball league struggled to balance domestic values with international pressures. However, the same challenge will soon face the nation itself. Without a clear game plan of which values matter most, America could drop the ball too.


Andrew Jarocki is a senior studying Political Science at the University of Notre Dame. He has worked in both Congressional offices and campaigns. He hails from Duluth, Minnesota, and loves a good debate about gerrymandering.







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