As the United States and Iran struggle to come to an agreement about the future of the Iranian nuclear program, it is worth considering the role of social justice in international affairs. The proper role of values in foreign policy is a question that has bedeviled thinkers for centuries, and there are, essentially, two schools of thought, defined loosely as “realism” and “idealism.”
Realist and idealist perspectives often clash in foreign policy disputes, and the question of what to do about Iran’s nuclear program is no exception. The proposed treaty would allow Iran the peaceful use of nuclear energy but not weaponization, under the supervision of international inspectors. To analyze whether that’s a good idea from a realist or idealist perspective, we must first define these terms.
For realists, countries in the international system—called “states” in the lingo of the discipline—are essentially billiard balls that react with one another in predictable ways based on material power. When one state gets too powerful, a coalition of states will balance that power to restrain its ambitions— ambitions that are assumed to be expansionist at all times.
For realists, countries…are essentially billiard balls that react with one another in predictable ways based on material power.
For classical realists (there are now many more flavors of realism), pursuing foreign policy based on naïve assumptions about “values” will lead states to make choices that ultimately erode their relative position in international affairs. The classic cautionary tale in this regard was the Carter Administration’s reluctance to support the Shah of Iran, a ruthless autocrat, when his regime was being challenged by a popular social revolution in the late 1970s. To everyone’s horror, the Shah’s despotism was replaced by an even more aggressive theocratic regime in Tehran that has constantly harassed the U.S. and its allies ever since. Realists would have supported the Shah because his government was a reliable ally, no matter how he treated his own citizens.
As for the contrasting view, the enduring vision of idealist statecraft belongs to President Woodrow Wilson. It was Wilson who first advanced a vision of international order based not on the power-balancing system of states-as-billiard balls but rather on the moral foundations of the state itself. For Wilson and his liberal descendants, the only way to secure a lasting, peaceful order in international politics was to bring into existence a fellowship of liberal, democratic states: countries that respected the rights of their citizens and would have no reason to squabble over territory and resources. The intellectual descendants of Wilsonian liberalism have argued for something called “democratic peace theory,” which suggests that liberal democratic states are never (or are at least highly unlikely) to go to war with one another. Idealists regard the spread of democracy in post-World War II Europe as the key to the continent’s relative calm.
The dispute between realists and idealists has carved out a lasting division in foreign policy thinking. On one side are those who believe that America must conduct its foreign policy in keeping with its democratic principles. On the other side are those who believe that other countries have the right to determine their own affairs, and that their transgressions against their own citizens should have little to no impact on U.S. foreign policy. This foundational divide reappears every time the United States must reappraise its relationship with a powerful, non-democratic state, as it did when President Nixon normalized relations with China in the 1970s.
Idealists regard the spread of democracy in post-World War II Europe as the key to the continent’s relative calm.
And now, we have Iran. Complicating the matter is the fact that a significant contingent of international relations scholars actually believes that nuclear weapons make the world safer. They argue that “more is better;” in other words, the threat of annihilation leads states to restrain their aggressive behavior and avoid even limited conflict that could escalate to a nuclear holocaust. Like many realist ideas, this is a way of arriving at a relatively just outcome—no nuclear obliteration!—by way of something less-than-just: granting countless states the capability to end all life on Earth with the flip of a switch.
In an ideal world there would be no nuclear weapons. It only takes one accidental war to wreak unprecedented havoc on global security.
But this theory might not work in the real world, where we have the possibilities of nuclear accidents, misunderstandings and command-and-control problems. In an ideal world there would be no nuclear weapons. It only takes one accidental war to wreak unprecedented havoc on global security.
A nuclear-free world is actually the end state of affairs envisioned by the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which commits the acknowledged nuclear weapons states to a process of disarmament that they have never taken particularly seriously. The NPT has instead developed into an elite club of nuclear states arrayed against the non-nuclear states. To further complicate matters, the NPT also commits nuclear states to assist other states in the development of peaceful nuclear infrastructure. The treaty being considered by the so-called P5+1 powers would recognize Iran’s right to this peaceful use of nuclear energy, while using monitoring and inspections to ensure that Tehran does not move toward weaponization.
From a social justice standpoint, an agreement with Iran that decreases the likelihood of proliferation is a defensible goal. It fits in some ways with the idealist vision of an ethically grounded foreign policy, and also with realist goals of restraining the power of other states in the system. However, this agreement must be made with a regime that has engaged in ugly behavior: bombings of civilians in Argentina and Bulgaria, attacks on U.S. military forces in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and of course, the ruthless repression of Iranian social movements and political actors. How can we square the circle?
Unfortunately, international politics is an arena that rarely lends itself to easy answers. This is why it so often feels like U.S. foreign policy clashes with our romanticized vision of American values. Policy decisions must sometimes sacrifice one value, such as the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people, for another: the reduced likelihood of nuclear annihilation. But this agreement would do more than reduce the already slim chance of nuclear holocaust. More importantly, it would substantially decrease the likelihood of a destructive armed conflict between the U.S. and Iran, a conflict that has the potential to spiral out of control, envelop the whole region in chaos, and undermine U.S. national security and interests. As the U.S. discovered so calamitously and expensively in Iraq, war usually makes a bad situation even worse, even for those people we are trying so clumsily to help. And in the long run, real engagement with Tehran is the best chance of steering Iran toward a peaceful, democratic future.
Unfortunately, international politics is an arena that rarely lends itself to easy answers. This is why it so often feels like U.S. foreign policy clashes with our romanticized vision of American values.
Ultimately, the justness of international policymaking should be judged according to whether it advances, in the long term, the human security and dignity of the global community. This agreement serves those laudable goals and thus should be supported—by realists, idealists, and everyone in between.