Can a Country Have Moral Interests?
In the case of the United States, it does. And it must defend them.
When a country is determining its foreign policy, how does it decide what its interests are? Any country would consider the defense of its own people from attack to be a core interest. If it is bound by treaty to defend another country, that would also rank highly on its list. Economic concerns are important, especially in an era of global trading networks whose vulnerabilities have come to light during COVID-19. And the pandemic has also shown what a stake every country has in global public health.
On top of those tangible concerns, though, can a country be said to have moral interests? If a country like the United States sees itself as a defender of democracy, freedom, and human rights, should it rank those as foreign policy interests alongside self-defense and economic security? It is certainly easier for a rich and powerful country to concern itself with humanitarian issues than a country whose modest means force it to be mostly concerned with its own survival. Is that, however, enough reason to devote significant resources to those issues?
If the answer is yes, Russia's invasion of Ukraine tests that proposition. The outpouring of sympathy directed at Ukrainians, and outrage directed at Vladimir Putin, give believers in humanitarian intervention a chance to assess how much use of hard power for liberal causes they are truly willing to advocate. If there is any place where the values Americans espouse are under attack, it is Ukraine. The United States will most likely not intervene directly in this conflict, and as it happens, I don't believe it should. But it will continue to support the Ukrainians, with arms and intelligence and sanctions against Russia. And it will do so for moral reasons, by all means short of war. This is as it should be.
I do not believe any country has a moral obligation to aid other peoples to the same extent it aids its own. A government is accountable first and foremost to its own people. If, for example, the Canadian government devoted all its time and resources to non-Canadians while ignoring the needs of Canadians, it would not be functioning as a Canadian government. It would merely be a collection of people, who happened to be Canadian, trying to do good for their fellow man. Moreover, any country that tried to do good everywhere would strain its resources—including its leaders' attention spans—making it very difficult to help anyone inside or outside its borders. Some countries whose governments have difficulty feeding their own populations can't afford to put militant humanitarianism in their foreign policies.
Nevertheless, if a powerful country sees a place where it can do good, I believe it ought to, even if it does not have to. This includes the use of military force to halt massacres. Think of it as a "bonus" achievement for a government, on top of fulfilling its obligations to its own citizens. Common humanity can be motivation enough for the leaders of intervening powers. They don't need to make grand claims of moral responsibility to justify their actions.
Why intervene at all? I've asked myself this question many times when trying to prepare to defend intervention in public. Okay, my internal critic says, it's tragic that people on other continents are being brutally killed. So what? You say we can't save everyone, so why not be consistent and keep the troops at home? If we're not going to use our troops to save Ukrainians from Putin, why should we get people's hopes up that we might save other people when they get massacred by other dictators?
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