Expressions of moral outrage have replaced foreign policy in the west. It is most notable in the anguished, and ahistorical, outpourings of David Cameron, but other leaders such as Obama and Hollande seem equally vulnerable. Even Angela Merkel sometimes indulges. Instead of developing foreign policy strategies aimed at identifying national interests, setting objectives, linking the objectives to the means of securing them and setting out acceptable end-games, they prefer the instant gratification of the moral high ground.
It is not the best basis for creating coherent foreign policy, but also creates other more specific problems. Other states, not prone to the same ethical considerations, find Western policy hard to understand (they usually mistake the ethical aspect for hypocritical posturing) and so Western actions hard to forecast. This can lead to dangerous miscalculations and policy errors (think of the damage done by British ambiguities a century ago). The lack of a clear foreign policy leaves political leaders vulnerable to the dictates of the media and the fickleness of public opinion. This leads to politicians’ logic: something outrageous has happened, therefore something must be done; this is something, therefore it must be done. Political leaders also open themselves up to manipulation by terrorists and non-state actors through skilful use of social media. Finally moral outrage is a short-term emotion, fixing on one outrage only until the next one comes along. In a world of conflict and instability, political leaders flit from one crisis to another as new horrors arrive through the normal or social media. They seem incapable of maintaining moral outrage, and thus foreign policy focus, on two issues at a time.
The growth of Islamic State (IS) and the western reaction is a case in point. It is a crisis that has been building over time. Its origins lie in the arbitrary borders drawn up by Sykes and Picot nearly a hundred years ago, and more recently the struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia for regional hegemony following the US/UK invasion of Iraq. The overthrow of Saddam upset the regional power balance and threatened to create a Shia crescent from Iran through Iraq and Syria to southern Lebanon. It was the decision by the Saudis and other Sunni states to fund and arm the overthrow of the Assad regime in Syria, and then the Sunni insurgents against the Al Maliki government in Iraq, that has led to the growth of IS. It is a situation that analysts have been aware of for months. But for most of that time the West paid little attention, focused instead on the Ukraine.
Only when IS made serious gains in Iraq, especially seizing Mosul, did the West start to pay attention. Even then it amounted only to limited support for the Iraqi army and the Kurdish militia. Two events radically changed the situation. Firstly, Obama admitted, reasonably enough, that he had no strategy for dealing with IS, provoking the contempt of US armchair strategists. Secondly, IS began beheading US and British hostages. Political leaders immediately sought to get ahead of public opinion in their expressions of moral outrage. Politicians’ logic then kicked in. The “something to be done” in this case was airstrikes. Obama still does not have a strategy for dealing with IS (nor do Cameron or Hollande) but now they are at war. It is a war without clear objectives, without any clear idea of how any objectives might be achieved or what an endgame might look like. At the same time, the political leaders seem unaware of how they may have been manipulated by IS. IS will have been well aware of the reaction videos of beheadings would provoke and the likely response of western governments. They may have calculated that a strategy-free western military intervention would play into their hands.
This failure to articulate clear foreign policies is not new. The same almost knee-jerk reactions to moral outrage can be seen in western reactions to the Ukraine crisis. In the latest Foreign Affairs, Mearsheimer argues that the crisis is much of the West’s making: I would argue that it is of Europe’s making, but that is for another blog. The point here is that instead of reacting to the annexation of the Crimea, the destabilisation of Eastern Ukraine and the downing of MH17 with a coherent strategy that set clear (and realistic) objectives, linked them to the means of achieving them and outlined acceptable endgames, Western political leaders again preferred to indulge in expressions of moral outrage, almost competing with each other in emotional intensity. Once again, politicians’ logic kicked in, this time in the form of Russia’s suspension from the G7/8 and economic sanctions. It is not clear what these measures seek to achieve, or how. Suspending Russia from the G7/8 seems only to have reinforced the growing importance of the G20. One can speculate on its influence on the decision by the BRICS summit to begin setting up their own alternative international financial institutions. So far it remains unclear who will suffer most from the sanctions tit-for-tat, Russian oligarchs or European farmers. Even if sanctions did eventually lead to Putin’s downfall, it would be likely to be only a short-term gain as a new Putin-like figure emerged (as Putin himself emerged after Yeltsin). No Russian government could now return the Crimea to the Ukraine and survive the nationalist backlash in Moscow. Seeking to isolate Russia overestimates the West’s influence and ignores the extent to which the West may need Russian cooperation in the future (eg in the withdrawal from Afghanistan or even as an interlocutor with the Iranian and Syrian regimes in the fight against IS).
With airstrikes and beheadings in Iraq and Syria, the Ukraine has in any case slipped down the media agenda, and thus out of the focus of western political leaders. Ukrainian President Poroshenko already senses the falling away of western support, and Putin the opportunity of securing a favourable deal without further fighting (or sanctions). Poroshenko may have to settle for what he can get: a secure gas supply for the winter and a federalised Ukraine without the Crimea and with limited ties to the EU. Western expressions of moral outrage will have done him little good. More importantly they will have left western relations with Russia in a mess: can sanctions be maintained if Moscow and Kiev have reached an agreement? Will Russia be re-admitted to the G7/8? Will Russia want to be? How can the West re-engage with Moscow on the broad agenda of geopolitical issues where they share common interests?
In a multi-polar world where US hegemony is declining and western-inspired global rule-sets are fragmenting, the West cannot afford to reduce its foreign policy-making to expressions of moral outrage. The other regional powers seem more capable of developing coherent foreign policy built around calculations of national interest and assessments of the means of securing them. They may make mistakes, or adopt means we find morally distasteful, but it is a better and more stable basis for the management of international relations. As Hal Brands writes of grand strategy in his new book (“What Good is Grand Strategy”) foreign policy should “represent an integrated scheme of interests, threats, resources and policies … that guides leaders seeking security in a complex and insecure world”; it avoids that “policy will wander according to the crisis or fashion of the moment”.