Early bird tickets for Baltimore’s BEST party on sale now!

When Moral Values Meet National Interest


Making foreign policy becomes very difficult for an American administration when moral values are in conflict with other national interests. This is the situation that President Clinton confronts as he makes decisions regarding Bosnia and China.

Should the administration use force to save Bosnian Muslims from destruction in spite of the uncertainties that almost inevitably accompany the use of force? Can Mr. Clinton and Secretary of State Warren Christopher stand passively by while another people is destroyed in the heart of Europe?

A similar issue looms on the other side of the world. Can President Clinton and Secretary Christopher acquiesce in the destruction of Tibet through China's population transfers, coercive family planning and repression? Or will they try to influence those policies by linking China's treatment of Tibet with its "Most Favored Nation" trade status, linkage which Mr. Clinton called for repeatedly during his presidential campaign?

Both these issues cut across party lines, creating new coalitions of conscience, judgment and interest. Both confront the administration with the kind of un- avoidable, painful choices that politicians hate.

In Bosnia, an incredibly bad human situation worsens as Serbian forces launch new attacks on the remaining Muslim towns swollen with refugees. Everyone now understands that the Bosnians are victims of a coordinated, implacable campaign of "ethnic cleansing." Mediation and negotiation -- attempted for many months without success -- will not save Bosnians who are now under fire. Force will be required.

But, against the powerful moral impulse to use American air power to save Bosnians, both practical and moral arguments are offered: That undertaking air strikes constitutes an open-ended U.S. commitment which could end in a Balkan quagmire; that a unilateral U.S. decision in favor of air strikes would violate international norms; and that American national interests are not involved in the Balkans, so the American government should not commit military forces.

The view that a country's military power should only be used to protect its interests has a long pedigree. It is accepted without question by most governments, but not in the United States. Although the United States has repeatedly undertaken military action for moral and legal reasons -- in World Wars I and II, in Korea, Vietnam and Somalia --such undertakings are exceedingly rare. Most governments, including those of our closest allies, simply avert their eyes from mass murder unless it involves their own nationals.

Even though some strategic interests are at stake in Bosnia, making a decision about whether to carry out air strikes will require President Clinton to decide whether it is reasonable and responsible to commit American power and resources to the pursuit of essentially altruistic moral goals.

He will also face fundamental questions about the appropriate use of U.S. foreign policy in legislation that links trade benefits for China to that government's human-rights violations.

Bills are being introduced by Democrats in the House and Senate to withhold "most-favored-nation" trade status for China unless that government allows unrestricted emigration, respects provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in China and Tibet, releases political and religious prisoners, prevents export to the United States of goods manufactured by forced labor, ends religious persecution in China and Tibet, and ends its policies of encouraging non-Tibetans to settle in Tibet.

These bills have bipartisan support and will almost surely pass the Congress this spring. They will confront Mr. Clinton and his administration with a hard choice -- should the U.S. give priority to good relations with China regardless of how China treats its own citizens? Interfering in the internal affairs of a great power that has a veto in the U.N. Security Council has a price tag attached. But so does conducting foreign policy without regard for American values.

A majority of educated Americans have almost always agreed that the primary duty of U.S. foreign policy is to serve the nation's moral goals. But a deep division developed after "the best and the brightest" led the U.S. into the Vietnam War, then changed their minds about that commitment.

The end of the Cold War unexpectedly reunited those who thought morality required opposing communism and those who thought it did not. The result is a new coalition of persons who have been at odds since the Vietnam War, now uncomfortably allied in support of a new Wilsonian foreign policy.

That is good news for the Bosnians and Tibetans. But it puts the Clinton administration under heavy pressure.

Jeane Kirkpatrick writes a syndicated column.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad