by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Any analysis that fails to appreciate national honor fails to take into account what actually motivates nations. The Scots seem poised to secede from Britain, and the foreign-policy establishment seems baffled by the idea. Don’t the Scots understand that such a move is not in their economic self-interest?
Lurking behind such questions is an assumption that we are all Homo economicus, that we act only on a narrow, largely financial definition of self-interest. Maybe we should, but we don’t and never will. If Palestinians acted solely on their rational self-interest, their conflict with Israel would have ended before it began. And there is a very strong case to be made for Obama’s view that Vladimir Putin’s empire-building will be bad for Russia in the long run. The only problem: Putin and a huge majority of Putin-worshipping Russians do not care.
“The mistake of the ‘realists’ is not their interest in the struggle for power but their deliberate neglect of everything else, especially the non-scientific, contingent, very human feelings and beliefs that most powerfully move people,” Donald Kagan writes in Honor Among Nations: Intangible Interests and Foreign Policy.
The neglect of such considerations can have enormous costs (as can too much consideration; see World War, First). The Ukrainians sent troops to fight with us in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, in their moment of need, all they want from us are weapons to fend off the Russians. Our refusal is not merely dishonorable in some poetic sense; it is dangerous because it sends the signal that we are not a reliable friend. That is why Obama had to issue the mother of all red lines in the Baltics last week, vowing unconditional support for our allies.
He was right to do so. But at this point it is an open question around the world whether America is the sort of country that will deliver on such commitments, given that the president has made it clear he considers such things mere theatrics.