Breaking the golden rule

Remember the Golden Rule? "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." It’s not normally regarded as a cardinal rule of foreign policy; in that realm, "an eye for an eye" seems closer to the norm. But lately I’ve been thinking that Americans ought to reflect a bit more on the long-term costs ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

Remember the Golden Rule? "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." It's not normally regarded as a cardinal rule of foreign policy; in that realm, "an eye for an eye" seems closer to the norm. But lately I've been thinking that Americans ought to reflect a bit more on the long-term costs of our willingness to do unto others in ways we would most definitely not want them to do unto us.

This past week, the New York Times has published two important articles on how the Obama administration is using American power in ways that remain poorly understood by most Americans. The first described Obama's targeted assassination policy against suspected terrorists, and the second describes the U.S. cyber-warfare campaign against Iran. Reasonable people might disagree about the merits of both policies, but what I find troubling is the inevitable secrecy and deceit that is involved. It's not just that we are trying to fool our adversaries; the problem is that we end up fooling ourselves, too. As I've noted before, when our government is doing lots of hostile things in far-flung places around the world and the public doesn't know about them until long after the fact, then we have no way of understanding why the targets of U.S. power might be angry and hostile. As a result, we will tend to attribute their behavior to other, darker motivations.

Remember back in 2009, when Obama supposedly extended the "hand of friendship" to Iran? At the same time that he was making friendly video broadcasts, he was also escalating our cyber-war efforts against Iran. When Iran's Supreme leader Ali Khamenei reacted coolly to Obama's initiative, saying: "We do not have any record of the new U.S. president.  We are observing, watching, and judging.  If you change, we will also change our behavior. If you do not change, we will be the same nation as 30 years ago," U.S. pundits immediately saw this as a "rebuff" of our supposedly sincere offer of friendship. With hindsight, of course, it's clear that Khamenei had every reason to be skeptical; and now, he has good grounds for viewing Obama as inherently untrustworthy. I'm no fan of the clerical regime, but the inherent contradictions in our approach made it virtually certain to fail. As it did.

Remember the Golden Rule? "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." It’s not normally regarded as a cardinal rule of foreign policy; in that realm, "an eye for an eye" seems closer to the norm. But lately I’ve been thinking that Americans ought to reflect a bit more on the long-term costs of our willingness to do unto others in ways we would most definitely not want them to do unto us.

This past week, the New York Times has published two important articles on how the Obama administration is using American power in ways that remain poorly understood by most Americans. The first described Obama’s targeted assassination policy against suspected terrorists, and the second describes the U.S. cyber-warfare campaign against Iran. Reasonable people might disagree about the merits of both policies, but what I find troubling is the inevitable secrecy and deceit that is involved. It’s not just that we are trying to fool our adversaries; the problem is that we end up fooling ourselves, too. As I’ve noted before, when our government is doing lots of hostile things in far-flung places around the world and the public doesn’t know about them until long after the fact, then we have no way of understanding why the targets of U.S. power might be angry and hostile. As a result, we will tend to attribute their behavior to other, darker motivations.

Remember back in 2009, when Obama supposedly extended the "hand of friendship" to Iran? At the same time that he was making friendly video broadcasts, he was also escalating our cyber-war efforts against Iran. When Iran’s Supreme leader Ali Khamenei reacted coolly to Obama’s initiative, saying: "We do not have any record of the new U.S. president.  We are observing, watching, and judging.  If you change, we will also change our behavior. If you do not change, we will be the same nation as 30 years ago," U.S. pundits immediately saw this as a "rebuff" of our supposedly sincere offer of friendship. With hindsight, of course, it’s clear that Khamenei had every reason to be skeptical; and now, he has good grounds for viewing Obama as inherently untrustworthy. I’m no fan of the clerical regime, but the inherent contradictions in our approach made it virtually certain to fail. As it did.

We keep wondering: "Why do they hate us?" Well, maybe some people are mad because we are doing things that we would regard as unjustified and heinous acts of war if anyone dared to do them to us.  I’m not really surprised that the U.S. is using its power so freely — that is what great powers tend to do. I’m certainly not surprised that government officials prefer to keep quiet about it, or only leak information about their super-secret policies when they think they can gain some political advantage by doing so. But I also don’t think Americans should be so surprised or so outraged when others are angered by actions that we would find equally objectionable if we were the victims instead of the perpetrators. 

And if we keep doing unto others in this way, it’s only a matter of time before someone does it unto us in return. 

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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