NELSON INSTITUTE DIRECTOR’S COLUMN CRITICIZES “SYMBOLIC” FOREIGN POLICY LEGISLATION

October 10, 2007

HARRISONBURG— In his biweekly feature for National Interest online, the web edition of the foreign policy journal The National Interest, Dr. J. Peter Pham, Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, criticizes the passage of “symbolic” foreign policy legislation and suggests that lawmakers need to ask themselves: “But does this gesture, meaningful as it may be…advance U.S. interests? And, if so, which ones and at what cost?”

Referring to the passage last week of the Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act of 2007 by a voice vote of the House of Representatives and this week’s possible vote on the Affirmation of the United States Record on the Armenian Genocide Resolution as well as the 1990 cut-off of aid to Pakistan under the Pressler Amendment, Dr. Pham argues that “humanitarian considerations need to be weighed against other U.S. interests” and concludes:

While the interests that might be pursued by a large, pluralistic country like the United States are infinite in number, the resources which it actually has at its disposal for their pursuit are always limited. Thus, as Hans Morgenthau repeatedly advocated, a rational hierarchy must be established among the elements which together constitute the national interest as well as the resources that condition the choice of means and ends. This is especially important in a democratic polity where the populist temptation is to present each of the various goals—defeating enemies, ensuring stability, opening markets, encouraging democracy, eliminating poverty and disease, promoting American culture, etc.—as equally essential, rather than in any way competitive among themselves. Morgenthau warned in The Purpose of American Politics that “the very survival of America calls for a new ordering of its relations with the outside world.” That, five decades later, Congress still indulges in symbolic gestures which, while not even serving core U.S. national interests, may nonetheless rattle the delicate balance of what our partners judge to be their most significant political or other interests, is a reminder of how much prudence is required to construct a rational, realistic, and, ultimately, sustainable foreign policy.

The full text of Dr. Pham’s essay, “Symbolism and Realpolitik,” can be accessed by clicking here.