Book Review: Do Ideals Matter for Foreign Policymaking?

Values in Foreign Policy: Investing Ideals and Interests
Edited by: Krishnan Srinivasan, James Mayall, Sanjay Pulipaka
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield
Pages: 269

What better time to discuss a subject when everyone seems to be ruing the absence of it. From that angle alone, this anthology “Values in Foreign Policy: Investigating Ideals and Interests” deserves attention and praise. Having strung together a discussion on values from states as diverse as Germany and Myanmar, Turkey and Iran, makes this compilation an essential reading for international relations enthusiasts.

Edited by a former Indian Foreign Secretary (Srinivasan), an academic (Mayall), and a foreign policy researcher (Pulipaka), the book has fourteen chapters examining the values professed by a representative sample set of countries in North America, Asia, and Europe.

To be sure, this book does not pass value judgment on one foreign policy “value” over the other. Nor does it make the naive mistake that values supersede power. Rather, the book has two modest aims: one, to improve diplomatic engagement through a knowledge of the values that originate in different local and national traditions. And two, to examine if some values have transcended local traditions and become truly global.

The book starts with a realist’s assertion that ‘whatever the style of government, and however much the professed value system is shown to be a desirable rather than a practical guide to the conduct of foreign policy, the public over whom governments preside expects the enunciation of some value-based guidelines to justify their actions’. Hence, this book is about narratives. It describes the stories governments tell domestically to pursue their policy objectives abroad. Like all stories, governments pick certain events from their past and reject a few others in order to construct a coherent linear narrative to justify their foreign policy actions. It is in this story construction process that articulation in terms of values becomes useful. Values rationalise stories and stories in turn are used to rationalise foreign policies.

Chapters 1 to 5 deal with ‘Western’ values and narratives: European, German, and American. Given that Europe and North America are also the most powerful countries in the world, the questions on values they deal with are of a higher order. they wonder if some of their values can become universal, to the extent that they start enjoying normative power over what ought to happen across the world. An example of a Western value that has gained immense normative power is human rights. It has the acquiescence if not the full commitment of nearly all states across the world. On the other hand, values such as secularism and liberalism have not fared so well.

These chapters illustrate that power itself is not enough for great power status. Even the most powerful nation-states require one more essential ingredient to transform themselves into world leaders: an exercise of power that is deemed legitimate by other actors in the system. In other words, great power status is the quest for authority — an exercise of power which is not considered as being coercion but as legitimate. Mayall writes that European states hope to gain this legitimacy through the universal advance of its secular liberal values. Whereas Germany deems the values of modesty, multilateralism, and being a ‘civilian’ power, as the pillars of its foreign policy.

In this section, readers will thoroughly enjoy the chapter by Bruno Maçães where he carves out the difference between interests and values. He concludes that today’s hostile environment could lead to a more activist Western foreign policy. To have any meaningful effect though, these values need to bridge differences and find common ground with other worldviews.

Chapters 7 to 14 are the real differentiators in this book because they deal with a severely under-researched topic: Asian powers and their value systems. There are chapters about values in Indonesian, Iranian, Turkic, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Chinese, and even Myanmarese foreign policies.

Readers are exposed to the key narratives in foreign policies of each of these countries. Zhang Lihua for example makes an interesting claim that Chinese traditional values of harmony, benevolence, righteousness, wisdom and faith, have lessons for the entire world. The yawning gap between these values and China’s actions in reality is dealt with superbly in the last chapter by Ravi Velloor. The chapter on Turkey and Iran illustrates the importance of Islamic values to the conduct of these two countries. And Srinivasan traces the history of Indian foreign policy to conclude that it still retains two core values — a unique exceptionalism grounded in its ‘soft power’ and a desire for decision-making autonomy.

The book ends with a discussion on the question: is there anything coherent that can be termed as ‘Asian values’, a concept that can challenge the dominant Western values? The answer is largely negative. Beyond the broad strokes of ‘the emphasis on modernisation and sovereignty, non-interference, top-down benevolent state philosophy and communitarian values’, there are no definable Asian values to be found. The lack of common Asian values not withstanding, the book is an enjoyable read for students of international relations.