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Palmerston, interests, and forms of governance


"We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are perpetual and eternal and those interests it is our duty to follow." Lord Palmerston, British Foreign Secretary, 1848.

I am principally a Palmerston disciple. If you believe as I do in permanent interests, the form of governance of one’s allies or adversaries is secondary. The criterion is that they either promote your interests or at least do them no harm in both the near term and long term, i.e., you must consider secondary effects before treating with a foreign power.

While I was in the intel community I had observed that if the USSR became a robber baron capitalist government over night that we would still be adversaries, that we have competing spheres of influence independent of form of government. I faced a chiding chorus of "the Reds" and it did no good to remind my colleagues that both Tsarist Russia and the growing US raced one another to commercialize the northern Pacific coast long before Lenin. The USSR was deemed bad because it was Soviet.

Take France, Germany, Russia, Uzbekistan and Iraq: The first two are reasonable Western democracies that we were ready to treat as Old Europe and shove over the side so great was our disagreement. The third had resuscitated the Duma and had we not been so high handed with them over the last decade, we wouldn’t be having such a snit with them over Iraq. The fourth is a piece of work, a repressive dictatorship that is ruthless with its citizens and harsher still with its Muslims -- another blowback in the making but we treat with them in order to gain bases to deal with a more immediate problem. The fifth was treated as ally by both Jacques Chirac and the US. The US turned out the same tyrant and the same government.

It is the interests and not the governance that is at play. If you do not think this proper, then you may be closer to Benjamin Barber’s "Beyond Jihad Vs. McWorld" in The Nation, 21 January, 2002, when he observed:

"Except the truth today is not only that democracies do not make war on one another, but that democracies alone are secure from collective forms of violence and reactionary fundamentalism, whether religious or ethnic. Those Islamic nations (or nations with large Islamic populations) that have made progress toward democracy--Bangladesh, India or Turkey, for example--have been relatively free of systematic terrorism and reactionary fundamentalism as well as the export of terrorism. They may still persecute minorities, harbor racists and reflect democratic aspirations only partially, but they do not teach hate in their schools or pipe propaganda through an official press or fund terrorist training camps. Like India recently, they are the victims rather than the perpetrators of international terrorism. Making allies of the enemies of democracy because they share putative interests with us is, in other words, not realism but foolish self-deception. We have learned from the military campaign against the Taliban and Al Qaeda how, when push comes to shove (push has come to shove!), the Egyptians and the Saudis can be unreliable in sharing intelligence, interdicting the funding of terrorism or standing firm against the terrorists at their own door. Pakistan still allows thousands of fundamentalist madrassahs to operate as holy-war training schools. Yet how can these " allies" possibly be tough when, in defense of their despotic regimes, they think that coddling the terrorists outside their doors may be the price they have to pay for keeping at bay the terrorists already in their front parlors? The issue is not religion, not even fundamentalism; the issue is democracy... "

I do not draw Barber's conclusion and would say that it has as much to do with shared interests as forms of governance. I definitely disagree with another comment that Barber made in the article that, "Even conservative realists have acknowledged that Israel--whatever one thinks of Sharon's policies--is a formidable ally in part because it is the sole democracy in the Middle East."

Israel pursues an independent diplomatic policy at odds with US interests. Israel is a modest cooperative partner in the US war against terrorism. Just as the Russians, the Pakistanis, the Chinese and others did in the post 11 September period, Israel immediately offered the US data that painted their parochial adversaries as the architect or participant of the air liner assault so that we might attack them. Each country offers or withholds information so as to advance its national interests, and attempts to influence where it cannot command. Israel is no exception and I think that it applies Palmerston better than the US.

Israel ran Jonathan Pollard, a US Navy civilian analyst, as a spy to enormous and ongoing harm to the US. Israel not only used that information to US disservice but further went on to sell or broker that information to the Russians and the Chinese, perhaps others. The impact on the US is still being felt to this day and none of the attempts of his apologist spouse, Esther, will wipe that away. The effects of Pollard's espionage is so great that Director CIA threatened to resign if Clinton pardoned Pollard. (If a US national has strong loyalties, be it religious, tribal, cultural or geographic, that work to the detriment of US interests, then I am also at odds with them.)

Israel is not a devoted friend of the US and it has nothing to do with religion or its democratic governance. (We forget that France was the principal post-partition mentor of Israel before the US.) It is a nation state acting in its best interests, some of which correspond to our own. In the interest of balance, I leave you with the "Morality" segment from the Foreign Policy section of Open Politics, a joint venture of the BBC and the Open University:

Morality: Does national interest always come first in Foreign Affairs?
BBC News
The Open University

Gordon Housworth

InfoT Public  Strategic Risk Public  


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