Lord Palmerston, a mid-nineteenth century British foreign secretary and prime minister is supposed to have declared, "It is a narrow policy to suppose that this country or that is to be marked out as the eternal ally or the perpetual enemy of England. We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow."
Palmerston was a whiggish imperialist, keen to use the power of the state to promote Britain's informal, commercial empire around the world at the expense of people South America and East Asia. But there is certainly more than a grain of wisdom in his articulation of what many would take to be a central feature of any rational foreign policy. A practical example of this would be uncritically hitching oneself to another state, and letting the world know that however circumstances might change, and whatever the consequences might be, that state will have our unquestioning support. One might assume that our "interests" would be defined less by a single state, and more by a vision for the world that involves stability, equality, and justice.
Narrow and uncritical thinking like this sounds like the height of stupidity, and yet it is precisely the type of bad diplomacy that Hillary Clinton and other neo-cons from both parties advocate, and which looks likely to become official policy should Clinton take office as President. Clinton's foreign policy history is riddled with immorality and an ill-judged obsession with military intervention.
But the feature of her foreign policy that best encapsulates this pernicious line of thinking, and also her understanding of power, is her insistence on putting the U.S. national security apparatus on autopilot in its support of Israel. Israel's colonial territories are an affront to human rights, and generate enormous instability. U.S. association with Israel not only mark us as an uncritical defender of a noxious colonial policy, but connect us to instability in the Middle East and make us a target for frustration and blowback.
If the U.S. was actually interested in making the Middle East more stable and Israelis safer, we would recognize that this requires good faith negotiations between the parties concerned, and that good faith negotiations cannot occur when one party (which already possesses military, political, and economic power over the other) knows that any time it is not getting what it wants it can leave negotiations and count on the backing of the world's only superpower. The idiotic unconditional support for Israel advocated by Clinton creates a disincentive for reaching a settlement, particularly when the current Israeli government is headed by a barking, racist, fundamentalist.
Addressing Palestinian grievances--material and political alike--would diminish the constituency that encourages terrible, deadly attacks on Israeli civilians. While many commentators increasingly believe that a two-state solution is no longer possible, the alternative--a cohesive single state--becomes a more and more difficult proposition with every day of Palestinian alienation and the mounting fundamentalism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies, who are seeking to corrode Israeli society.
So ironically, a Clinton policy designed to promote "moderate" elements in the Middle East actually emboldens fundamentalist Israeli colonialism while giving ever more credibility to the fundamentalist Islamic interests Clinton wants to degrade.
Clinton is not content with guaranteeing the Israeli state her total backing. She has lashed out, repeatedly, at that state's critics. Preying on anxieties about very real anti-Semitism that exists in the world, Clinton has lied again and again about the anti-Semitic nature of the divestment movement, which seeks to decouple the investments of public and private institutions in the U.S. from Israeli industries complicit in a self-destructive and immoral colonialism. Clinton has likened people who criticize the behavior of the Israeli state to the Biblical pharaoh, claiming that supporters of divestment "malign and undermine Israel and the Jewish people."
Clinton's contemptible attacks on human rights advocates, and her grotesque distortions of their words and ideas--which if taken seriously would actually strengthen the legitimacy and security of the Israeli state by doing away with the behaviors that generate threats for that state--mark her as a supporter of a powerful state at the expense of powerless people, as well as an abjectly inept practitioner of the diplomacy at which she is supposedly expert.
Bernie Sanders, surprised by his own success in the primaries, turned too late to linking the ethics of his foreign and domestic policy in a way that might have won him far greater support early on in the primary process. He nonetheless proved far braver than any other high level U.S. political figure in questioning the logic of unconditional support for the Israeli state.
The alternative is the unhinged, bloodthirsty fascism of Donald Trump, who would pursue physical and structural violence against certain categories of American citizens. Trump has pledged to pursue a militaristic foreign policy that would involve the widespread use of torture and the mass murder of family members of terrorists. Trump has repeatedly lied to cover up his support for the Iraq war to appeal to swing voters. But his past support for regime change combined with his advocacy of mass violence makes him a threat to people around the world as well as U.S. citizens.
That our alternative appears to be the neoconservative Hillary Clinton is thoroughly depressing, and a testament to how her supporters' obsession with hammering the "Bernie Bros" prevented them from using the primaries to convince their candidate that neoconservatism is a noxious, perilous, immoral, and destructive ideology that has no place in our politics. Sadly, it is also a testament to Sanders’ own failure to develop a coherent foreign policy, in spite of the readiness with which his social democracy could transform the international as well as the domestic realm.
If Hillary Clinton wants to treat international relations and policy like some crude board game, where we divide the world into allies and enemies, and blast away at each other no matter the consequences for either the American public or the people of the other state who we are ostensibly seeing to help, the electorate should pitch in and buy her an "Axis and Allies" set to go and play with Dick Cheney.
But if she wants to pursue a rational, moral, and coherent foreign policy, she should back away from irresponsible claims and commitments, think more expansively about the nature of U.S. "interests," and give a more holistic consideration to how to frame an international policy designed to enhance the lives of people around the world.