When to fist bump an autocrat

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James Snell is a widely published writer and a senior advisor on Special Initiatives at the New Lines Institute.

Just last month, there stood United States President Joe Biden, fist bumping Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who the U.S. intelligence community says approved the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. It wasn’t a one-off.

As the West seeks to isolate Russia’s Vladimir Putin, it has turned to other oil-rich autocrats in the Gulf for help to ease the energy crisis.

But should it be?

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From Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia and Europe’s courting of Qatar — as well as Azerbaijan’s autocrat Ilham Aliyev — the West’s search for fossil fuels in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted criticism from rights groups and reignited the perennial debate about ethics and realism, a reductionist binary unhelpful for the moment at hand.

In foreign policy talk, the terms “idealist” and “realist” are largely worthless, of course. Much of the time, the most obvious idealists will insist their chosen policies are deeply practical. And the coldest, flintiest of realists will claim the mantle of morality.

Consider, for example, Samantha Power — the academic and diplomat whose memoir chronicling her time in government was called “The Education of an Idealist” — as she documents innumerable instances of her good intentions being undermined and overthrown by hard-headed cynics in former U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration. But she concludes that her idealism was enhanced rather than weakened in this trial by fire.

And then there’s John Mearsheimer — high priest of the most callous and rigid realists — saying, in a lecture given at the University of Chicago in 2015, that the problem of “Ukraine,” as generally construed, is the fault of the West. In light of Russia’s subsequent invasion, this lecture and snippets of it have now been viewed tens of millions of times. Note his clerical tone.

As Mearsheimer explains his view that the West should not — for practical reasons — have encouraged Ukrainian independence, or given Ukrainian leaders the backing to “provoke” Russia, he becomes whipped up and agitated. Policymakers’ divergence from his ideology doesn’t just irritate him — he considers it deeply wicked and sinful.

Both realism and “ethical” foreign policy are bunk. “The world is everything that is the case”; acting within it is humbling and practical.

For example, a central tenet of realism is that the interaction of small and large states causes conflict. If small countries are insufficiently deferential, or have outside help, they invite attack by the irresistible force of their more powerful neighbors. This isn’t just the law of the jungle, say the realists, it’s physics — nature abhorring a vacuum.

The war in Ukraine, however, shows that we’re reaching the entropic end stage of foreign policy realism.

Where once Mearsheimer could call Ukraine a provocative popinjay — weak enough to entice Russia, artificial enough to fail to defend itself, thus inviting war and nuclear holocaust — now his latter-day adherents say the opposite.

Ukraine has defended itself. It has pushed Russia back. It has disincentivized — though not fully — the Russian eradication of Ukraine as a geographical and political feature of the world.

Mearsheimer need not worry though, nor does Stephen Walt, another realist who concludes that arming Ukraine must have been accompanied — or one might say undermined — by corresponding guarantees and reassurances to Moscow. Because even if small countries prove they can protect themselves, realists argue that they should be prevented from doing so.

For them, Russia is as provoked by strength as it is by weakness, and any Russian escalation — including the ending of life on earth — can be made to be the fault of the democracies.

But what, then, about “ethical” foreign policy as an alternative?

It’s certainly back in vogue in this time of genocidal invasion. Many ethicists are appalled that Biden would attempt to lower oil prices by dealing with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia — a man Biden himself has publicly deplored, and his party sees as a pariah.

But is it ethical, instead, to allow Russian fossil fuel exports to dictate the market? Almost certainly not — and above that, it is not moral.

Ethicists are not moralists, per se. More often than not, they are overeducated — whether in reality or in their own minds — and spend their days sprinkling academic flavor on what they already believed without reasoning. 

Confronted by these ideological approaches, practical policymakers have other options. Led by morality, their task is to do as much good as possible with the tools at hand.

For example, working in Downing Street now is an academic called John Bew. He’s the intellectual firepower behind the British government’s recent Integrated Review of all foreign and defense policy. 

Bew wrote a good biography on Britain’s hated early nineteenth century Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh — an arch realist despised by the Romantics — as well as a book on the history of realpolitik. A strategic thinker, a student of realpolitik, on paper Bew is a classic case for the Mearsheimer novitiate.

But not so fast. Before his government service, Bew wrote for the newspapers. When Britain and the Americans failed to realize their responsibility to prevent and punish chemical weapons use in Syria in August 2013 — a move the realists thought grimly necessary — he made the case that the West was humiliated: shown to lack both practicality and morality. And later he wrote, of fighting ISIS, that it was both deeply practical and a moral necessity.

No sham realism here, giving practical gloss to humanity’s worst impulses. No phony ethics either, justifying whatever the speaker already wanted to do, or condemn, with transient nit-picking.

Instead, it’s morality tempered by practicality.

Because true morality in foreign policy, as opposed to “ethics,” understands that the ends — a free world that is prosperous, well armed and expanding — justify some temporary means that might not be so palatable; means that could help us defeat the revisionist, genocidal warfare of the Russian state.