May 31, 2023 Article

To Engage or Not Engage: Ethical Challenges and Tradeoffs for U.S. Statecraft in 2023

Approaches for policymakers to consider when grappling with the ethical questions of whether and how to engage with authoritarian or increasingly illiberal states and actors.

As the world exits the post-Cold War era, this new period is increasingly defined by multiple profound challenges: from wide-ranging “strategic competition” with China to the climate, food, and energy crises. In this moment, the United States does not always have the luxury of choosing the states it needs to partner with or leaders it plans to work with to advance its foreign policy agenda.

In fact, some of the countries most critical to the success of U.S. efforts to address these challenges are either not liberal democracies or are governed by illiberal, authoritarian-leaning figures. And even among the democratic community, there are growing fissures over how pluralism and individual rights are to be managed within the overall structure of society, meaning further points of disagreement over what constitutes fundamental social and political rights.

An upcoming official state visit to the U.S. by India’s Prime Minister Modi and the reelection of Erdogan as Türkiye’s president provide real-time examples of challenges for U.S. policymakers seeking to understand and utilize an ethical approach to statecraft.

Below I discuss three approaches for policymakers to consider when grappling with the ethical challenges of engaging with authoritarian or increasingly illiberal states and actors:

The “Nonintercourse” Approach

The “nonintercourse” approach proposes having no relationship with states or leaders adjudged to be violators of human rights or other ethical standards. However, this is only feasible when the lack of any interaction does not jeopardize measures where failure would have profound ethical consequences. An important case study is the U.S.’ approach to Zimbabwe, which for many years was one of the most heavily sanctioned countries in the world. The U.S. decided to pursue aggressive sanctions because an effective nonintercourse policy did not risk any substantial U.S. equities, at least until China became much more active in southern Africa.

An example of the limitations of nonintercourse was the U.S. relationship with Soviet leadership of the 1950s and 1960s. By any standard, Soviet leaders of the time presided over a system that ran roughshod over the human rights of millions (even if in service of a supposed ethical aim of producing a more just society)—and were personally implicated in those actions. Yet the risk of nuclear war meant that U.S. leaders could not cut off all contact or eschew diplomacy. When Dwight Eisenhower engaged with Nikita Khrushchev, it was not meant to affirm Khrushchev’s brutal conduct as Communist Party boss of Ukraine but to acknowledge that diplomatic efforts with him were designed to head off the possibility of a clash that might end life on Earth. When pressured to sever diplomatic ties with the USSR after the Soviet decision to intervene in Hungary, a note-taker observed: “The President said that this was indeed a bitter pill for us to swallow. What can we do that is really constructive? Should we break off diplomatic relations with the USSR? What would be gained by this action?” The bitter pill for policymakers is the one Hans Morgenthau identified: those entrusted with responsibility for the state do not have the luxury of saying, “Let justice be done, even though the world perishes.”

More often, U.S. presidents and their administrations attempt to reconcile competing ethical imperatives through several different approaches. One is "compartmentalization"—where the U.S. tries to avoid contact or engagement with specific individuals or specific institutions within a country while remaining engaged with others. This is at the heart of Senator Patrick Leahy’s famous amendment which prohibits U.S. security assistance to specific units adjudged to have engaged in human rights violations. There is evidence that the compartmentalization approach, in the past, did incentivize countries to create “clean” units or to rotate out or retire individuals with problematic records. Yet such measures break down when a specific leader—especially if the head of state itself—is directly connected to abuses, or where the organization that violates human rights is also the lead on an issue of ethical importance (security of nuclear issues, preventing terrorist attacks on civilians, etc.) The Biden administration, for instance, found it difficult to thread that needle with regard to Saudi Arabia, by trying to draw a distinction between King Salman as the de jure head of state with the reality that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is the day-to-day chief executive.

The Engagement/Intercession Approach

A second approach is engagement/intercession—where the argument is made that direct contact allows for issues to be raised and requests to be passed along. We have seen, for instance, that in the last years of U.S.-Soviet engagement, and then for a time in U.S.-China engagement, Soviet and Chinese leaders might release political prisoners or announce amelioration of measures on human rights to facilitate talks with Washington.

Prime Minister Modi, who as chief minister of Gujarat was banned from visiting the U.S. in 2005 on the basis of the 1998 international religious freedom legislation denying visas to officials adjudged to have played a role in stirring up intercommunal clashes, has visited the U.S. since becoming prime minister, even over objections that his administration is moving in a more illiberal, authoritarian direction. Indeed, he will make a formal state visit to Washington in June. In responding to criticism of that decision, White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre specifically cited the engagement rationale—that the president would directly raise human rights concerns with the Indian leader during their talks. But she also alluded to India’s importance to larger U.S. concerns—from balancing China to forging ahead with partnerships on climate, green energy, and new technologies.

One of the limitations of the intercession approach, however, is whether the intercessor has something that the other party wants. In the context of the 1990s, when the U.S. sat at the hub of the global system, its ability to threaten sanctions in the event of noncompliance was a powerful tool. Today, there are alternatives that give those leaders greater leeway to refuse such requests.

Prioritizing the Long Game

Finally—and perhaps the most ethically challenging approach, is to prioritize the long game. Accepting that there might be no amelioration in the short term, in the hope that a more ethical outcome will come from the partnership. For example, the U.S. stood by repressive authoritarians in both Taiwan and South Korea in the hopes, eventually realized by the end of the 1980s, that the U.S. partnership could help pave the way for the evolution of more liberal, democratic systems. However, the same cannot be said about the U.S.’ efforts with Saudi Arabia during this period. U.S. engagement did not lead to greater democratization on the Arabian Peninsula, but Saudi Arabia did provide assistance in everything from keeping oil prices low to supporting anti-communist movements around the world, which in turn increased the pressure on a brittle Soviet system that ultimately collapsed, liberating millions of people.

Despite certain outcomes that U.S. policymakers might see as “wins” as a result of engagement, appeals to the long game can also seem like excuses to evade more troubling ethical questions about abuses or violations occurring in the here and now. (The creation of a new term, “democratizing,” was a way to get around the gap between current practices and future aspirations on the part of several U.S. partners in the 1990s and beyond.)

Perhaps, therefore, the best way forward for the ethical policymaker is to embrace specific, achievable goals that advance morality and justice in a particular instance.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev

The Potential Path Forward

Perhaps, therefore, the best way forward for the ethical policymaker is to embrace specific, achievable goals that advance morality and justice in a particular instance. A key starting point to this approach is to identify specific countries and leaders that are prepared to help achieve those ends. Jada Fraser for instance has written about the concept of “minilateralism”—an approach to forging limited partnerships with a small number of partners to tackle a specific issue.

As the world moves towards conditions of active, turbulent multipolarity, we may be forced to consider what an “ethical minilateralism” might look like. Instead of conceiving of one overarching league of states committed to a common vision for ethics in international affairs, we might see the emergence of Evelyn Goh’s vision, based on the architectural styles of the tropical climates in Southeast Asia, of varying ethical coalitions comprising “multiple stilts of different sizes and functions.”

Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs is an independent and nonpartisan nonprofit. The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Carnegie Council.

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